Offering a definition of ‘woke’ as it is expressed today, alongside reflections on concerns, consequences, and how we should respond.
What does woke mean?
Woke is an ideology that upholds the primacy of identity group experience, and enforces it by emphasizing moral purity and discomfort avoidance.
There are three core pillars:
- Primacy of identity group experience. People are defined primarily by group membership over individual characteristics. Lived experience is the ultimate form of knowledge. There is a hierarchy of identities based on oppression. Authority comes from ones place in that hierarchy.
- Moral Purity: No tolerance for imperfection. One has never done enough. Past mistakes are irredeemable.
- Discomfort avoidance. If a discussion causes discomfort, it should be avoided. It is more important to avoid discomfort than to discuss issues.
Of course, woke is a spectrum, and these characteristics expressed to their full extent capture the end of that spectrum. (try the quiz!) It’s also worth noting that the term woke has etymological origins that differ from the above: we’re focused on providing a practical definition of how it takes shape in society today.
1. Primacy of identity group experience
The most defining characteristic of an individual is the identify group they are a member of. The most important kind of knowledge is that gained through lived experience in that identity. If you aren’t of a relevant identity, your point of view isn’t relevant. Being of a certain identity confers a specific type of knowledge for every person of that identity. The rights and perspectives of those that have experienced the most severe oppression are the most important.
- Obsession with “who has the right” to speak / act. Only black-led organizations should work on issues of police brutality. Even if an organization led by someone non-black has the strongest theory of change / highest ROI approach, they are not worthy of funding.
- Reverse discrimination. “I’ll only vote for a female candidate”. An unwillingness to consider the benefits of a particular male candidate over a female candidate
- Hierarchy of oppression. JK Rowling speaks out about her belief in the importance of recognizing biological womanhood and is labeled as trans-exclusionary, because although womanhood comes with its own oppressions, the experience of trans people is worse.
2. Moral Purity
In order to be “ok” you must be perfect. If you have an imperfection, or have done something wrong, your voice doesn’t have legitimacy. No person (or organization) can ever be doing “enough”. When progress is made, the focus is on what is not being done, over what has been improved. A past mistake leaves one irredeemable and deserving of punishment, no matter the apologies, learning or future good done.
- Cancel culture. Gone with the wind removed from online libraries because critiques exist of its depiction of slavery historically, despite being one of the most watched films of all time, and leading to the first Oscar for a black actress.
- Retributive action. Justine Sacco jokes about white people not getting AIDS (either racist or making fun of racism), and is fired from her job following the descension of a Twitter mob.
- Never enough. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian steps down from the board and calls for his position can be filled by a black person. Woke voices respond by pointing out his flaws: he has been (at least partially) responsible for activities that have progressed oppressive causes (eg. left r/theDonald intact, not implementing policies to protect trans rights on the platform)
3. Discomfort avoidance
If a discussion causes discomfort or causes offense to a marginalized group, it should be avoided. It is more important to avoid discomfort than to discuss issues.
- De-platforming. Andrew Tate was banned from Twitter for tweeting that women should “bare some responsibility” in response to the #MeToo movement. A horrific sentiment of course, but the argument could be made for the importance of them being publicly discussed, not hidden to fester.
- Safe spaces. Spaces dedicated to students of a particular identity proliferate, with more and more students choosing the comfort in which they are not challenged to the discomfort of engaging over difference and disagreement.
- “Not my job”. Robin DiAngelo points out that you must not ask Black people about their experiences and feelings, because it isn’t their responsibility to educate you. The value of helping a well-intended white person understand
PS. Read the latest news about woke discourse here.