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By John McWhorter
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.
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