The True Purpose of the Term ‘Woke’
The online Catholic Encyclopedia has a predictably extensive definition of Gnosticism. What comes as a surprise, however, is how closely its sweeping definition also describes the animating logic of so much online progressivism—contemporary, identity-based, for the young. The first sentence alone could be a bumper sticker on the car of some hypothetical millennial, assuming he or she was one of the shrinking number of young people who actually drive: “The doctrine of salvation by knowledge.” The Encyclopedia goes on to define with a barely perceptible disapproval:
it is markedly peculiar to Gnosticism that it places the salvation of the soul merely in the possession of a quasi-intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge. Gnostics were “people who knew”, and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.
That encapsulates the logos of millennial progressivism in our time. Analytical argument is out. Overly simple in/out group bifurcation is in. Andrew Sullivan captures this in writing about what social justice theory calls “intersectionality”—the barely coherent claim that people’s identities are almost entirely formed by an overlapping hierarchy of social oppressions. He considers it akin to religion and emphasizes its particularly odious us/them oversimplifications: “If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral.” Ah, but those who “know” are truly blessed. And in the clownish vulgate of online progressive culture, forged in the inchoate fires of a shrill Gnosticism, we can identify members of the flock by the slang term “woke.”
What does it mean to be woke? That it’s conventionally the past tense of “wake” is a clue. Someone who has been woken is finished with sleep. In millennial political slang, it means someone who has awoken to the progressive truths of intersectionality. Amanda Hess, writing in the New York Times, explains: “Think of ‘woke’ as the inverse of ‘politically correct.’ If ‘P.C.’ is a taunt from the right, a way of calling out hypersensitivity in political discourse, then ‘woke’ is a back-pat from the left, a way of affirming the sensitive. It means wanting to be considered correct, and wanting everyone to know just how correct you are.”
This new adjective woke is a stamp of approval, a self-congratulating label, a goal, a challenge. Most importantly, it’s a boundary line separating people. The word is a floating signifier serving as a PC litmus test while concealing the often shifting requirements to pass.
It also has a history deeper than the typical superannuated focus of internet subcultures. Writing in Fusion, Charles Pulliam-Moore traces the origins of the word’s use in pop culture to Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher,” with a roughly similar meaning to its current use—staying aware of the continuing political struggles of African-Americans. After a brief hibernation, the word experienced a popular resurgence around 2012 following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even then, the word was tethered tightly to a fairly coherent group of political objectives centered on police reform and an acknowledgement of systemic racial oppression. But around 2014, writes Pulliam-Moore, the word got hashtagged and memed. Even if you disagreed with the politics behind the original usage, the word was then at least bound to subjects which required serious moral consideration. By 2014 it was used to describe almost anything. Your “inner hoe.” Justin Bieber. The Footlocker website. Matt McGorry.
After woke drifted into the miasma of what Rod Dreher calls “Weimar America,” a funny thing happened to it. It was simultaneously diluted of specific meaning while maintaining a kind of informal authority by virtue of its association with African-American culture. The linguist and professor John McWhorter explains:
Even if on a certain level we think of black casual speech as riddled with “errors”—though, we shouldn’t—on another level we hear it as truth. The white pop singer who wants to become famous must enunciate with a Southern black cadence to some extent. Have you noticed how many voiceover artists for faceless institutions, like banks and medicines, are now black ones?
McWhorter frames this as a victory for African-American culture. As he puts it, “Black Language Matters.” But the more broad association between the pop-rebellion of hip progressive culture and its appropriation of African-American slang isn’t a new one. Norman Mailer wrote about it in his 1957 article for Dissent, “The White Negro,” a garrulous rant that was more an incandescent exhibition of linguistic heat than intellectual clarity. Nevertheless, while drawing his broad-stroke sketch of why mid-century hipsters came to appropriate elements of African-American culture, he had more than a few useful insights about the “language of Hip” giving “expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip.”
Mailer notes the variety possible within a closed solipsistic loop when he writes about how the semantics of African-American vernacular are so fungible that a word such as “dig” could have countless meanings but could be interpreted only by someone who was on the same cultural page as the speaker. The word could be literally referring to any number of things, but the final question it posed was always: Are you hip? Are you like me? Language like this isn’t meant to be precise or to persuade. It is meant to draw an us/them binary and judge experience from within experience, or based on “what one feels at each instant in the perpetual climax of the present,” according to Mailer.
Thus woke is more than a throwaway word. It’s a slang term working as a cultural clue. It signals that cultural progressivism is a secular spirituality in want of a coherent theology. In the catechism of this ersatz religion, woke is a kind of creed. It epitomizes the decay of deep engagement with cultural and moral issues into a cheap buzzword which mutes debate and confounds discourse. “Are you woke?” is a question meant to be answered with a simple yes or no, but the correct answer is always yes.
To not be woke is to be regressive, straining against the current of moral history. As the goalposts constantly move on what might constitute political and social wokeness, it’s helpful to keep in mind the late Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s description of modern progressive secular ideology as “the idea that man is capable of self-redemption, i.e., of achieving salvation through action” and the belief that “the advent of perfection on earth will be achieved as the outcome of human initiative.” Anything standing in the way of this terrestrial utopia tethers us to the “nightmare” of tradition, the “hell” of rooted memory. Or, as Marx pithily put it, “Everything that exists deserves to die.”
The immense weight of all of these progressive assumptions is carried by the single diminutive syllable of “woke.” As Andrew Sullivan suggests in his take on intersectionality and the attack on Charles Murray at Middlebury College, radical ideology trends toward stifling debate, usually on dubious “moral” claims. And despite all the parallels with gnosticism, this is where the metaphor ends. Ultimately, the progressive goal becomes not truth but power.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.