What comes to mind when you hear the term wokism? Activism countering injustices against minorities and the marginalized? Confrontation and cancellation, both public and private, of figures of the past and the present? A step forward for integration, inclusion, and acceptance? A step backward for academic and scientific research and discussion?
How did a word with a clear, straightforward meaning become first a source of inspiration and action and then, to many, something dreaded and divisive? In 2017, Merriam Webster defined woke as being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” There are earlier references to the use of woke in this sense. In 1938, singer Huddie Ledbetter told Black people they “best stay woke, keep their eyes open,” going through Scottsboro, Alabama. A 1962 article in the New York Times by William Melvin Kelley described how White “beatniks” had appropriated the term from African Americans and that it meant “well-informed, up-to-date.” It entered mainstream vernacular when the Black Lives Matter movement created the hashtag #staywoke following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. According to Merriam Webster: “The word woke became entwined with the Black Lives Matter movement; instead of just being a word that signaled awareness of injustice or racial tension, it became a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.”
Many ideals of wokism seem compatible with humanism but, as they have evolved in practice, perhaps not so much. For example, woke pressure to punish those whose comments have been deemed offensive has in turn been criticized for violating democratic principles of free speech. But as Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch sees it, the critics are “rightwing culture warriors [who] claim to support free speech” but “seem to want minorities to shut up and stop complaining.”
As opposition has grown to wokism, so have the political stakes. “Republicans want to recast ‘wokeness’ as progressive politics run amok, and many establishment Democrats shrink from the term because they either believe that Republicans have succeeded at the task, or, of even more concern, they agree with those Republicans,” wrote Charles M. Blow in “The War on ‘Wokeness’” in the New York Times. “Blow discussed political strategist James Carville’s comments on PBS Newshour about the loss of the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor in November 2021. Carville said, “Well, what went wrong is this stupid wokeness. … They’re expressing language that people just don’t use. … These faculty lounge people that sit around mulling about I don’t know what are—they’re not working.” In response, progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) blamed the loss on an uninspired campaign and lies by the opposition (claiming critical race theory would be taught in school with a democratic victory).
The Guardian subsequently invited various writers to comment on the episode and the current state of wokism. Wrote Laura Kipnis: “The instinct is that something’s going on with you, the rebuker, that you can’t see in yourself; all this hectoring and exhorting is compensatory in some way. … I believe it’s more useful as applied to political style than political substance.”
Derecka Purnell offered: “Carville’s condemnation is exactly why Black people continue to tell each other to stay woke: elite white actors and institutions benefit from exploiting Black votes, activism and culture while telling us to bury our grievances about their violence.”
But some are starting to move beyond wokism. According to Guardian columnist Bhaskar Sunkara: “To be ‘woke’ once meant to be alert to the continued realities of oppression. … But today its meaning has shifted. To be ‘woke’ is to lack urgency about building the coalitions that can win over working-class people and actually redistribute money and power to the oppressed.” He continued: “Progressives have a program that can win—we now just need the right way to communicate it and new approaches to organizing people around their most pressing economic concerns.”
And there was this from Thomas Chatterton Williams: “The challenge for anyone interested in something deeper than culture-war point scoring is to develop new language that is specific enough to persuade those who don’t already agree to consider the same old questions from new angles.”
Read on as FI authors explore wokism and related developments, their relationship to humanism, and other approaches for achieving a just and humane society.
What comes to mind when you hear the term wokism? Activism countering injustices against minorities and the marginalized? Confrontation and cancellation, both public and private, of figures of the past and the present? A step forward for integration, inclusion, and acceptance? A step backward for academic and scientific research and discussion? How did a word …