Critical Reflection on Uses of the Term ‘Woke’

Various political actors use the term “woke” in such a divisive way that it has lost its analytical value. It carries too many connotations (generally negative ones) and its meaning is imprecise. I prefer to avoid it.

In the contemporary fight for social justice in the United States, to be “woke” (“awake” in American slang) is:

a) aware of social injustices, especially when dominant discourse masks them and even more so when one is undergoing them, and

b) along with this awareness, taking a stance against the cultural hegemony of dominant people whose discourse tends to make us blind to social injustices. It is in this way, for example, that critical race theory aims to make visible racist thinking that does not call itself racist and is disguised as a universal way of thinking. I think that this racist thinking is more obvious in the United States than in Canada or Quebec.

In sum, the term has meant awareness of injustice and of the need to call out its manifestations in language and culture. This is where the woke position expresses itself. It gets its positive meaning (in the eyes of those who fight for social justice) from contesting the power relations that are expressed in discourse.

But how did it acquire negative connotations? And negative for whom?

For various reasons, “woke” stances have suffered slippage in their meaning; that is to say that they have given way to unjustifiable actions that have discredited it and are responsible for the pejorative use of the term. But what constitutes a slippage in meaning and unjustifiable action?

2 Perspectives

The first perspective (which is my own) is found in support for the fight for social justice. It is leftist overall, but it criticizes inadequate usages of certain accusations of racism or transphobia, especially when they are accompanied by actions meant to silence.

The second perspective is that of hegemonic groups, who see the questioning of the established order as a bad thing. Thus, they are going to seize upon each slippage in meaning to emphasize the dangers. Their criticisms will carry more weight as the slippages become more and more numerous.

When an anti-racist activist who encourages her students to participate in a Black Lives Matter rally is called a racist for using the “n” word in order to analyze strategies for reappropriating stigma, that is a going off the rails that does not serve the fight for social justice. But even there, there is still nothing to point out. There is a long tradition of radicalization in fights for social justice, particularly in student movements. You cannot blame 19-year-olds for doing what 19-year-olds do: question. The problem occurs when the university, under the cover of standing up for social justice, backs motions of censure and validates, wrongly, the accusations of racism made against the instructor before adequately looking into the matter to see if the accusations hold up.

In this way of thinking, several educational institutions or even powerful media outlets look favorably on these excesses — for various reasons worthy of a separate analysis. In a recent publication,* I examined two aspects of these slippages in which: a) moral positions replace analytical ones, and b) concepts (racism, various phobias) are drawn out beyond their valid limits. That means that those who think they possess inclusive virtue and absolute truth feel they have the right to silence discourse that they do not like, even within the university. That is what allows us to conclude that the woke position, liberating in the beginning, is now counterproductive in the fight for social justice.

In this context, hegemonic groups (carrying a right-wing perspective) have an easy time delegitimizing criticisms of the dominant social order because of these slippages. This situation allows for a demagogic discourse that associates all criticisms of slippages from the woke position with the right wing and moral panic.

That is why it is important that the forces questioning the dominant order remain vigilant when it comes to these slippages in meaning that discredit their fights.

*Identité, “race,” liberté d’expression. Perspectives critiques sur certains débats qui fracturent la gauche. Under the direction of Rachad Antonius and Normand Baillargeon.

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