How Bad is Woke?

One of those terms that keeps coming up in political discourse, particularly from Republicans, is woke, which is a slang term for awakened or the idea that a particular individual is tuned into some or all of the cultural realities they find themselves and their contemporaries facing.

The Republicans are decidedly anti-woke, even those who oppose the depravity of Donald John Trump. For example, Representative Liz Cheney, says in a Washington Post opinion piece, “There is much at stake now, including the ridiculous wokeness of our political rivals…” Her piece was pushing back on Republican House members who will apparently vote to remove her from leadership. It needs to be said that they are doing so out of a form of wokeness: that of supporting and protecting the likes of Donald John Trump and his many lies.

Indeed, the concept of woke cannot merely apply to some set of liberal issues. It is akin to the idea of redpilling—from The Matrix, giving some kind of brain disruptor pill (which takes the form of a red gelcap) to a person inside a simulated reality, in order to cause the machinery that maintains their pod of goop outside of the simulated reality to decide to spit them out and allow them to awaken to the real world. Redpilling was a term adopted by self-described pickup artists seeking to get rich quick by teaching young men lacking confidence how to easily find a sexual partner. It was subsequently adopted by conservatives to mean to inculcate others into the cultural realities they perceive as pressing, including pro-racist propaganda and other conspiratorial idiocy.

On the conservative side, someone like the infamous infomercial pillow salesperson is considered woke, which is how he’s able to stay awake all night to sell pillows to insomniacs, one supposes. He fully embraced the lies, which is what woke passes for among conservatives: knowing what the lies are and how to pronounce hydroxychloroquine.

It’s important to recognize the nature of woke, that it isn’t a liberal thing, a Black Lives Matter thing, but it is a more general concept. It’s like a fellow traveler or “Are you NORML?” or any number of other signals that someone is aware and at least in agreement with the cause at hand, if not committed or completely ordained in its ranks.

Cheney isn’t alone in her alarm over the left-woke. President Obama in 2019 spoke up against a more narrow form: hypercorrectiveness toward others online. More recently James Carville pointed to the cultural shift invited by left-woke folk, implicating it in a backlash by people who don’t want to say Latinx or that find the judgmental aspects either an affront to them personally or at least annoying as a cultural phenomenon.

But someone in Cheney’s position, writing up a defense of Donald-John-Trump-free conservativism, chose to throw wokeness out as a key signal to her woke-about-woke brethren, implying herself capable of the same kind of bashing against liberals who want to fix problems that Donald John Trump can. She’s saying that she’s not some pro-solutions, follow-the-science type, but has some moral reservations about storming the Capitol as a political method. (The Republicans ought befuddle themselves, which is to say, wake up! before their supporters do it again.) One is mildly surprised she didn’t include a photograph of herself holding a pill bottle with hydroxychloroquine showing on the label.

Cheney’s problem with woke is never articulated in the essay. If you scratch the surface of conservative thought, you can see the issue isn’t about the judgment or criticisms. It’s about cultural power. It’s about pointing to the left-woke folk and saying, “They’re getting too big for their britches, so vote against the politicians they vote for.” It’s a cultural supremacy issue, if not a pure racial one. To the right, woke is just the latest bug-a-boo that signals how they’ve lost control. In fact, for years the conservatives attempted to be the cultural police and often still hold themselves up as the kind who only drink for the taste.

To the establishment left, woke is a conservative bug-a-boo that might cost enough votes in close elections to matter. Perhaps it’s slightly easier to say than cancel culture. But part of the reason woke seems so dangerous, in both cases, is that it is a general concept. If people start to understand they should keep up with their world, their government, they might not like what they see. They might try to cancel all sorts of lucrative arrangements. And nobody can control what might get hitched to the wagon of woke, once it gets rolling. Will it be taxes? Will it be pollution? Drug prices? How far will it go?!

It’s like the economic catastrophe of investing in America to fiscal conservatives. It’s like the doom of modern gun laws to the gun fanatic. It’s the critical race theory to people who still fret about Marxist conspiracies, the same conspiracies they used to justify opposition to the civil rights movement. But it’s also something they can sell a book about, get on a radio show, causing damp collars as their friendlies’ brains extrapolate from a swear word or a rap album to the doom of the earth. Paper fans being passed out with the sponsor’s name on them as the audience worries about the cliff that’s hidden behind that loose woman’s mini-skirt. And we’re full circle: again, it’s about being woke about woke.


How bad is woke? First, we should go back to the original point: wokeness, issues of policy purity, of loyalty, are nothing new. The wokeness issue on the left mirrors the loyalty-to-Donald-John-Trump issue on the right. Meanwhile in China (The New York Times: 4 May 2021: “Grim Image of India Prompts Debate Over China’s Swaggering Propaganda”), where a communist rag juxtaposed an image of a rocket set for launch with the plight of India’s COVID-19 surge, there are loyalty issues against those who thought it rude and unworthy. No doubt Cheney would decry Hu Xijin’s wokeness if this were an American publication and snafu, so long as Hu weren’t a Republican.

Or look to the varied autocrats around the world, curtailing the press, jailing opposition leaders. Are they not on the same anti-woke crusades that conservatives call for, only more direct, more cruel? Cracking down on electors and candidates and protests they deem too disruptive or subversive? Where is the line?

A few further points. One is habit. Once the behavior of the critique by the woke is established online, it becomes a reflex for many. The policing of speech is a habit. Its intentions are to shape language, no different than conservatives own language efforts, including climate change over global warming and slurring any Democrat as a socialist.

Woke behavior on the left, or pro-Trump behavior in conservatives, in the context of online behavior, is fairly sticky. People who grew up in or lived through the depression kept their habits, many of them to their graves. Some of us may keep behaviors from the pandemic. It takes time and replacement behaviors to change away from them. Simply voting out the preferred candidates of the bad actors doesn’t do it.

The other point to be made is that these behaviors do not arise for no reason. They have many causes. One is the anonymous nature of online activity. We don’t have our faces or our clothes to mark us or for others to see us and create an understanding of us as people. The natural result is to lock on to artificial characteristics.

People want to be social online, so they have to adopt markers to find their group. Woke is among those markers. Nationalist, whether an American conservative in America or a Chinese communist in China, is a marker. And reminder is again needed that the falsification of markers for malice is quite easy, and that such malice goes both ways: bad actors can pretend to be an ally or an enemy online, all by adopting the right style of woke.

Woke is not that bad. We should be woke about woke in all its forms. We shouldn’t be afraid to separate the woke goat from the woke sheep, nor to recognize the conservative forms of woke that do exist, including their tendencies to conspiracy. Most of all, don’t let conservatives scare you from standing up for good values because you’re afraid they could win elections. Don’t be a jerk about good values, but don’t be afraid that being good is a sucker thing to do.

It’s late. I’m going to sleep.