The war on ‘woke’ is meaningless, which is why it’s so popular

by Solomon D. Stevens

Right-wing politicians are on the warpath. They want to banish everything that is, as they call it, “woke.”

The Florida legislature passed the Stop W.O.K.E. bill, which is currently before the courts. Social media is rife with posts decrying the evils of, as Elon Musk calls it, the “woke mind,” and Sarah Huckabee Sanders accuses President Joe Biden of being led by a “woke mob.” People around the country want “woke” teachers jailed. The only problem is that the word itself has very little meaning. And that is what makes the word dangerous.

What do people think they mean when they use the word “woke”? A lot of different things. Some see it as a reference to the excesses of political correctness. Others believe the word applies to anything that makes them feel guilty for being white. Some see the word as a sign of gender confusion. And others somehow see “woke” as referring to socialism, communism or even fascism. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

Almost everyone has heard of George Orwell’s “1984,” but he also wrote an essay that is less well-known but extremely important: “Politics and the English Language.” In it, he discusses problems he sees with how we use language and how it is connected to our political life. We could use his help today.

Orwell points out that when we use sloppy, imprecise language, our thinking becomes sloppy and imprecise. In that respect, he says, our words can be both a cause and an effect. Our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” And that is the problem with using the word “woke.”

People who don’t know what they are talking about use an ugly and inaccurate word to express themselves, but using that word makes it more likely that our thoughts will become uglier and more foolish.

The word “woke” has no clear meaning, but to those who use it to condemn others, that doesn’t matter because the word is just a way of announcing one’s membership in a kind of club or gang.

It is a culture war badge.

Those who use it simply say they are unhappy with how things are today and would like the world to change in ways they would like to see. And they seek others who share their general, inarticulate uneasiness. That is why, as Orwell put it, “words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”

In addition, the language of “woke” is employed to vilify others; “they” are not simply wrong, they are enemies of civilization. Those who are “woke” are portrayed as a threat to everything decent and good. But as Aristotle says at the beginning of his “Ethics,” everyone wants what is good. The problem is that people disagree about what that is.

Our country could benefit from a genuine argument about cultural issues. But using “woke” as a catch-all term for bad things is not helpful. In fact, it contributes to political confusion and conflict.

Orwell would caution us that deliberate imprecision in language cannot help us. We don’t need vague, undefined words that serve only to demonize our opponents. It is hard for people to respond to the charge of being “woke” when the word makes almost no sense.

The current war on woke isn’t an attempt to take a policy stand. It is more like a version of standing your ground. Those who use the word as a term of derision see themselves as defending civilization against the forces of darkness, but neither civilization nor darkness is defined. The cry to “stop woke” is nothing more than a cry to others who are confused to circle the wagons and prepare to defend whatever they happen to cherish against whatever they fear.

Our political life is not helped by the sloppy language we use, but Orwell is optimistic that politics can be improved by clarifying the language we use by eliminating what have become bad habits.

“If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” We can take a step toward improving our political life by using language more precisely and meaningfully.

Solomon D. Stevens is the author of “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”