‘Woke’ Went the Way of ‘P.C.’ and ‘Liberal’

In 2018, the NPR correspondent Sam Sanders made this modest proposal: “It’s time to put woke to sleep” — arguing that the term had passed its sell-by date. But “woke,” which has a longer etymological history, has only become increasingly common in recent years. What was once a popular adjective among left-leaning social media cognoscenti as part of the colloquial admonition to “stay woke” to various forms of systemic racism first morphed into a general shorthand denoting today’s left-leaning orthodoxy and then a slur that underscored the overweening, obsessive nature of said orthodoxy.

Last week, the Times columnist Bret Stephens argued that wokeness has been “clobbered” politically. That came on the heels of the Times columnist Maureen Dowd arguing that wokeness “derails” the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of Democrats’ loss in the recent Virginia governor’s race, the veteran Democratic consultant James Carville identified “stupid wokeness” as the proximate cause. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, herself an avatar of wokeness, tweet-dismissed that assessment by saying “the average audience for people seriously using the word ‘woke’ in a 2021 political discussion are James Carville and Fox News pundits so that should tell you all you need to know.” A couple of days later, she tweeted: “‘Woke’ is a term pundits are now using as a derogatory euphemism for civil rights & justice.”

Having arrived, then, at an intramural Democratic skirmish over the meaning of “woke” — and how much blame it should be assigned for the party’s woes — there should be little doubt remaining that progressives have lost this latest terminological battle. “Woke” is broke. The question is what will replace it.

As I wrote back in August, “stay woke,” an expression that migrated from Black vernacular to mainstream use, went from being insider progressive-speak to a term of derision for a progressive agenda. At its best, it was deployed as a catchphrase — often in hashtag form — to urge others to stay focused. At its worst, as I argued in 2016, it allowed many progressives, supposedly attuned to injustice, to signal their commitment to combating it without actually demonstrating an understanding of its causes or remedies.

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

Over the past few years, it has become all but impossible to use “woke” neutrally. It has been refashioned, like “P.C.,” as an insult. One could say that this was simply because of contempt for leftist ideas, even ones relating to improving lives for Black people, but only at risk of oversimplification. Wokeness, as a kind of ideology, has irritated so many because of the tendency for some of its partisans to see those who dissent from their views as disingenuous, antidemocratic and even immoral. To be woke, past tense, is to be awake, present tense, to a way of perceiving societal matters. But it’s a short step from seeing matters this way to assuming that it is the only reasonable or moral way to see. That latter assumption has a way of rankling those who see things differently.

Now, those on the left, from Ocasio-Cortez on down, face a new iteration of an old dilemma: A neutral descriptor of their worldview saddled with a negative connotation.

It’s easy to forget how antique, or at least vague, “liberal” feels lately. Much of the reason is that the term was tarnished by the right almost as much as woke has been. In an era spanning, let’s say, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Newt Gingrich’s House speakership and Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush, those who thought of themselves as liberals in commitment to nudging America toward ever broader embodiments of its ideals, especially those involving the dignity of all individuals, were tarred as unpatriotic sentimentalists dedicated to big government and with insufficient interest in family values.

Writing for The Times in 2009, Timothy Garton Ash hoped we might reclaim the classical meaning of the lowercase-L liberalism we learn about in college, espousing grand but abstract ideas such as “liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism and some notion of human equality, reason and progress.” After all, who could possibly be against any of that?

But it didn’t happen. Intellectual constructs such as those aren’t exactly what gets most people to the polls, and conservatives sneering endlessly about capital-L liberals discouraged any consideration of more approachable uses of the term. Rather, when Hillary Clinton was asked in a 2007 Democratic primary debate whether she called herself a liberal — the rough equivalent of asking Ocasio-Cortez today whether she would call herself woke — Clinton replied, “I consider myself a proud modern American progressive.”

And even if Clinton might more accurately be described as a mainstream Democrat, these days it would seem that “progressive” will have to suffice to suggest left-leaning enlightenment without the overlay of snark.

That may feel unsatisfactory to progressives, even after acknowledging that “progressive” doesn’t lend itself as easily to rebuke because, among other things, it’s the antonym of “conservative.” To “stay woke” certainly feels punchier than “staying progressive,” in carrying an air of commitment to race issues in particular. Also, apart from explicit commitment to race, American culture, despite the racist biases in its fabric, includes a tacit sense that Blackness, and the Black lexicon, carries cultural weight or authenticity. “Woke” felt real, grounded — awake — in a way that the Latinate “progressive” and “liberal” never could.

Perhaps Black English will yield a new neutral term for wokeness. Two outcomes would be likely. One is that if it goes mainstream, some will object that the crossover is a form of cultural appropriation. The other is that sooner rather than later, that new term would come to be processed as a slur for the same reasons that “P.C.,” “liberal” and “woke” were.

So here’s another modest proposal: Progressives inclined to tar people for their perceived complicity in an assortment of injustices — for having insufficiently woke views — might temper their fervor. If they could manage that, a new equivalent to “woke” as a mere descriptor, with the positive-to-neutral connotation it had not so long ago, might last a little longer.

Pour one out for the old “woke.” It was fun while it lasted.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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