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The True Purpose of the Term ‘Woke’

The online Catholic Encyclopedia has a predictably extensive definition [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] “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 [4]: “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 [5] 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 [6].” Justin Bieber [7]. The Footlocker website [8]. Matt McGorry [9].

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 [10]:

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,” [11] 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.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "The True Purpose of the Term ‘Woke’"

#1 Comment By Mike Kuetes On May 16, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

It seems odd to accuse liberals of smug self-elevation when the right is so widely enamored of the term “libtard”.

I notice there is no such corresponding term on the left to dismiss the right as innately mentally deficient. Similarly, the common comment-section claim that “liberalism is a mental illness” or “liberalism is a disease”, usually in just those words, is abundant internet-wide, yet no such explicit fundamental accusation about conservatism is anywhere near as widely seen.

It seems to me that you’re complaining about the speck in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.

#2 Comment By Marc On May 17, 2017 @ 12:43 am

Mike Kuentes, I think an examination of the right wing’s terms of abuse and enlightened-us self descriptors would constitute a different article.

Of course, when you can neutralize another person’s point of view while simply pointing out that they’re white, or male, or cisgendered, or middle class, or whatever other identity is assumed to be power-wielding and therefore fatally beyond the empathetic divide, you don’t even need to dismiss them as being “contarded”. Ignorance is not an essential trait, and at least some of the ignorant are educable.

#3 Comment By Ian On May 17, 2017 @ 4:07 am

I would not use or defend ‘libtard’, but I really think you’ve skipped over quite a lot of amateur diagnosis done by liberals.

#4 Comment By Richard McEvoy On May 17, 2017 @ 4:29 am

I am not sure which is more pernicious, the belief that perfection on earth will be achieved solely by human initiative or the belief that perfection on earth is solely within the gift of the Divine, with no human effort required other than pious expectancy. Neither position seems to me a righteous one.

“Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!” – attributed to Oliver Cromwell, “Oliver’s Advice” – William Blacker, 1834

#5 Comment By mrscracker On May 17, 2017 @ 6:46 am

Mike Kuentes,
Don’t you think there’s name calling and stereotyping on both sides?
As far as assumptions of mental deficiency, my experience has been that it’s a given if you identify yourself as a rural Southerner. And doubly so if you admit holding traditional Christian values and faith.

#6 Comment By Mario Diana On May 17, 2017 @ 10:26 am

Political correctness has a lot in common with the Puritanism of 17th century New England. Individuals want to be thought of as part of the elect. But one dare not proclaim himself as such. Instead, the outward signs of one’s status as one of the elect are for others in the community to recognize. Moreover, salvation is as much communal as it is individual, so the community cannot abide having one of the “damned” among them. Thus, conformity is paramount, or one risks a very public excommunication.

The politically correct, “woke,” or what have you, are religious zealots, as atheistic as any of them may be. They’re desperate to be with the latest fads blessed by their community and terrified of not measuring up and being outed as imposters. On top of that, they’re as keen to point the fingers at the “other”—especially the “others” who may lurk among them—as any 17th century Puritan would a heretic or “witch.”

Plus ça change…

#7 Comment By Diogo On May 17, 2017 @ 10:36 am

The right has its own equivalent to woke: “red-pilled”.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On May 17, 2017 @ 11:23 am

Mario Diana says:

Political correctness has a lot in common with the Puritanism of 17th century New England.”
My thoughts, too.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 17, 2017 @ 11:30 am

“It seems to me that you’re complaining about the speck in your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.”

Ohh nonsense



essentially we are talking about linguistic turn of words by jiggling their either the semantic or the traditional rues governing word structure.

First, the use of terms such as these have no real force.

Second, the reason they have no real force is that they are in context of discussion in the names themselves are representative of slights that reflect a particular political, orientation as opposed to a personal afront.

Third, shifting their meaning into a discussion of founding is partly the point of this article. So it denotes the that aspect of sensitivity and the chastisement that comes with it.


I think my bock here rests on any references to AA culture. While some semblance of one exists. It is not rooted in language, music, mannerisms. It’s a shared history and that is about close as one comes.

There is amalgamate of African cultural practices that one can lean, but because blacks are a composition of hundreds of various African societies, there is no single such referent. What exists is a loosely understood polity or societal gravitation that resulted from exclusions.

But meeting a black from Detroit and a black from NYC one discovers they are vastly different in dialect, language use and and mannerisms.

Aside from the advocacy concerning the criminal justice system, nearly all of the “woke” business would sound peculiar save for people in academic settings.

In my understanding, “woke” is a reference for political awareness of difference as to place in white society. But that awareness is externally propelled to specific societal historical to present meaning. And like many of issues unique to blacks in this society, the dominant culture will find ways to distort its meaning an impact for their particular desire to maintain a hold on power.

Which for a woke black person is typically missing the point.

#10 Comment By Cat On May 17, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

Woke…….virtue signaling by Liberals to shut up all discussion or opininions anyone has which isn’t theirs. I know, I got “You’re not woke!!!!!!” When I said I like Trump.

#11 Comment By Will Harrington On May 17, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

Mike Kuetes

I attribute your observation to a lack of creativity. They used the terms racist, privileged, and bigot to an outrageous degree, in fact, until people no longer declared. It seems everyone has a beam in their eye, I’ll help you pull yours out if you help me with mine.

#12 Comment By Dave On May 17, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

Old conservatives writing about young liberals never goes stale.

#13 Comment By PRDoucette On May 17, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

As a member of the Boomer generation it is disheartening to read an article that is concerned about what the slang used today by Millennials says about what their agenda is for the future while conveniently ignoring the slang we Boomers used in our teens and twenties that the Silent generation was sure signalled the coming collapse of society and an unwarranted repudiation of the societal legacy the Silent generation had built.

In our youth we Boomers claimed we were going to make the world better and freer but for all our youthful bravado we have barely changed the legacy left to us by the Silent generation and in some cased debased this legacy. If we look at the Boomer legacy we could well be accused of making the world worse by causing a major decline in the middle class leading to greater inequality, the erosion of privacy under the guise of ensuring security and raised the ROI to be the holy grail of economic greatness without any meaningful effort to mitigate the effect on those affected by this quest. In many ways it could be argued that Boomers have become even more conservative than the Silent generation.

As tempting as it may be to try to discern the slang meaning of “woke” to Millennials and what it may say about their political and societal leanings perhaps we would all be better served to “wake” up and realise that just as we Boomers came to realise that the world is not as simple as black or white, left or right or liberal or conservative, the legacy we Boomers are leaving to Millennials is just as likely to be little changed when the children of the Millennials take over power from them. For all the youthful bravado of today’s Millennials they are just part of a continuum and just like we Boomers they are unlikely to change the legacy left them any more than we Boomers have really changed the legacy left to us by the Silent generation.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 17, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

” Or, as Marx pithily put it, ‘Everything that exists deserves to die.’”

That nasty supercilious “woke,” most of all.

#15 Comment By Veronica On May 17, 2017 @ 4:25 pm

What Diogo said. Red-pilled.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 17, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

“Political correctness has a lot in common with the Puritanism of 17th century New England.”
My thoughts, too.”

I for one am fully supportive of endorsing parental use of “chastity belts,” parental escorted dating, asking parental permission to wed, restroom propriety, respect for elders, a solid work ethic . . .

But I suspect that’s not what the two of you mean, which leaves me puzzled about what similarities there are.

Transgender classrooms perhaps . . .

#17 Comment By Boethius On May 17, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

The attempt to compare conservative and liberal badmouthing of each other is hindered by the fact that the right typically paints the left as irrational, while the left typically paints the right as evil (note two references in the article to “immoral”). On that basis I will defend the right. Whether an argument is fact-based and logical can be objectively determined, with both left and right having the means and the right to challenge the rationality of the other’s positions. However, the left has rejected organized religion as a source of rules, which leads me to wonder what they mean by “evil” or “immoral” when they so accuse me. An atheist could look to the Catholic Church’s “natural law” teachings or to Enlightenment ethics treatises by Kant and others to discover serious attempts to distinguish good from evil without regard to divine revelation. The modern left, however, is wholly unaware of those authorities and seems to distinguish good and evil in the same manner that junior high school students determine what is “cool” in a given week.

#18 Comment By David Skerry On May 17, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

God save the English language!

#19 Comment By Ed On May 17, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

One advantage of the current extreme polarization is that words concepts like “woke” or “libtard” or “wingnut” or “moonbat” or “rethuglican” remain largely the property of one group and don’t really enter general circulation. Using ideologically charged words signals that one belongs to one faction and is opposed to the other. If a phrase does break through to general circulation — like “politically correct” it tends to be used in a very different way than it was originally employed.

So long discussions of phenomena like “wokeness” tend to be beside the point. It’s not like such phrases and behavior are taking over the country. Rather, they remain niche phenomena. Maybe, at some point we’ll see a dangerous American earthquake that shakes the country out of its fifty-fifty stalemate, but something like that only happens once a generation. Consequently, what “they” are doing or saying tends to be more like a quaint in-group custom than a trend that will overwhelm the whole country.

#20 Comment By Just Dropping By On May 17, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

@ Marc: Indeed. It’s interestingly underexamined how the term “white” itself has become a slur just by itself. (And if someone is going to dispute that claim, I would point them to the posts and particularly comment sections of blogs like Jezebel, The Root, etc., where negative things, behaviors, actions, etc. are often characterized as “white,” or bad actors are identified as “white” even when there’s no racial dynamic to what was happening or any reason to believe that something is more associated with white people than any other ethnicity.)

#21 Comment By Nicholas Stix On May 17, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

Mike Kuetes says:

“I notice there is no such corresponding term on the left to dismiss the right as innately mentally deficient.”


#22 Comment By Nicholas Stix On May 17, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

The writer seemed to have something to say at the beginning and the end, but engaged in a 200-word-long exercise in pc triangulation, regarding Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter, African-American culture and John McWhorter. The resulting copy is a bloody mess.

#23 Comment By Ellimist000 On May 17, 2017 @ 8:21 pm


If you actually listened to the vast majority of the people who are, as you say, “pointing out that they’re white, or male, or cisgendered, or middle class, or whatever…is beyond the empathetic divide…” you would realize that the point is not that they think that those groups are inherently unreachable, just they are, in the comfort of their social power, ignorant, and often choose to remain so even when it is to the detriment of their fellow citizens. Ignorance that, one might say, they need to be ‘woke’ from.

The thought you express in your comment (and articles like this generally) confuses me. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that you though that non-white, non-male…etc. people were the only liberals. It is mind numbingly obvious that there are plenty of white male yadda yaddas that are quite aligned with the values of the SJWs. Most probably did not vote for Trump.

Stop making this more than what it is. They think their values are right, and your’s are wrong. Conservatives think exactly the same way and use or have used many of the same tactics to enforce them when they can get away with it. And frankly, liberals who aren’t a part of the Black Bloc or whatever use less abusive language and are more willing/able to integrate converts (compare, for example, the power of white conservative democratic vs. ALL black republican politicians in the country)

#24 Comment By Globalmitch On May 17, 2017 @ 9:00 pm

Nope. It doesn’t “enforce political correctness.” Beauchamp can try and contort the term into all manner of liberal sins, but ultimately, being woke just refers to whether or not you’re a clueless 4sshole.

Being woke merely denotes someone who treats all others with a base level of respect. A level it should be noted, that many Republicans and conservatives conspicuously fail to achieve when it comes to people, or groups of people, that they don’t personally identify with (African Americans first amongst them).

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 18, 2017 @ 3:51 am

“The attempt to compare conservative and liberal badmouthing of each other is hindered by the fact that the right typically paints the left as irrational . . .”

I was going to say,

“Don’t be so emotional.”

” The modern left, however, is wholly unaware of those authorities and seems to distinguish good and evil in the same manner that junior high school students determine what is “cool” in a given week.”

Ah, you mean they are being irrational.


#26 Comment By Jacqueline Luqman On May 18, 2017 @ 10:29 am

Maybe – just maybe – most of us who have been using the term long before it became a popular buzzword actually mean it as it is used:

To be and remain aware of the truth that many refuse to see, acknowledge, and take the time to understand.

Yes, it is a little annoying that it is over-used and turned into almost a popular marketing tool now. That doesn’t negate what it does, and has always, meant to many who have been fighting injustice – especially racial injustice – in America for generations.

The same way you don’t want your views dismissed with a word, we are tired of having ours dismissed with the idea that just because it doesn’t happen to you, and you don’t understand it, that you don’t believe it, so it has no relevance at all.

#27 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 18, 2017 @ 10:36 am

“Woke” isn’t an insult like all those other terms commenters are comparing it to. It confers special status of advanced true knowledge to whom it is applied or claimed by, almost transcendent in nature. It is indeed Gnostic, and confers a divine mandate in their own eyes upon whomever claims it. There is no use for reason to argue with those who are woke – it is beyond their understanding, thus they have no relevance.

Some folks can write, after a fashion, but they have lost the power to reason.

#28 Comment By Mark On May 18, 2017 @ 3:05 pm

Everybody who thinks anything counter to any discernible other group presumes him/herself to be awake – or ‘woke.’ The ‘wake up’ demand is in fact a call of desperation, indicating frustration with the lack or homogeneity in human thought. For me the ‘woken’ are the other, and their demands are pathetic. Thankfully, I’m still dreaming.

#29 Comment By Tyler On May 18, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

It’s about the wisdom of self-transcendence at it’s core. To see that we are all one, but it’s the perception of self or ego that keeps us blind. It’s the message of Jesus and Buddha, who ‘woke’ up. Conservatism can be seen as the philosophy of the Ego in terms of public policy and Liberalism can be seen as the philosophy of the spirit. The secret knowledge of Gnosticism is this….understanding yourself. That’s it. Know thy self. Transcend your perception of self.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you have then will become you.
-Jesus in the Gospel According to Thomas

#30 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 19, 2017 @ 3:55 pm

” . . . It is indeed Gnostic, and confers a divine mandate in their own eyes upon whomever claims it.”

Hmmmmm . . .,

I think the old and new testament are riddled with the references to waking up.

Romans 13:11
‘And do this, understanding the present time: The hour …
And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to
wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we … ‘

Revelation 3:3
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and … it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you … ”

Psalm 108:2
“Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn… Wake up, lyre and harp! I will wake the dawn with my song. …
Wake up, harp and lyre! I will wake up the dawn. … ”
//biblehub.com/psalms/108-2.htm – 16k