No, I Don't Know What You Mean by 'Woke'
but i'll try to give some account of how the word works and what's going on with the "define 'woke'!" discourse
There’s been a lot of recent debate over the definition of ‘woke’ sparked by self-identified anti-woke author Bethany Mandel’s failure to provide one during an interview with Briahna Joy Gray. Anti-woke pundits have since risen to the challenge, offering up a variety of different explanations of what the term means (though none of them are precise definitions) while simultaneously claiming that the definition is common knowledge. In the comments of Freddie DeBoer’s ‘Of Course You Know What "Woke" Means’ you can find plenty of sympathetic readers offering up alternative views about what the word means. If we all know what the word means, then I have no idea why there’s so much disagreement over, well, the meaning of the word.
I’m not going to focus too much on the ‘definitions’ that people have been arguing about. Some of them are hopelessly narrow (Good luck finding more than 10 people who believe that all group differences are caused by discrimination) and some are so airy-fairy that I’m left impressed that you could use over 1000 words to say nothing. Others have given interesting and thoughtful descriptions of some social phenomena they find troubling, but don’t really fit with how other people use the term. A precise definition of ‘woke’ should do two things:
Tell you what falls under the extension of ‘woke’, capturing all of the ‘woke’ things that people talk about in the definition.
Tell you what doesn’t fall under the extension of ‘woke’, excluding all of the non-’woke’ things that people talk about from the definition.
None of the proposed definitions I’ve encountered do both of these things successfully. But so what? This is a pretty difficult thing to do and some people have suggested that the “What is the definition of ‘woke’?” question isn’t worth engaging with in the first place. Asking someone to define a fuzzy and complicated term is a cheap way to generate a ‘gotcha moment’. The meanings of words are often ambiguous or vague and that’s a pretty standard feature of ordinary language. It’s difficult to give a precise definition of ‘woke’ that includes everything that fits under that label and excludes everything that doesn’t, but it’s also difficult to do that with words like ‘liberal’, ‘bald’ and ‘tall’. Yet we still know what these words mean and use them in everyday conversation. Anyone who went around insisting that people provided a perfect precisification of ‘tall’ whenever they say “LeBron James is tall” would be laughed at. So the term ‘woke’ is not especially problematic and anyone pretending otherwise is just being pedantic, right?
Maybe, but I think this reply misses the point. Lots of expressions in ordinary language are ambiguous or vague but what’s important is that competent English speakers know how to use them correctly. We might disagree about whether a 5’11” guy is tall but we sure as hell agree that a 6’5” guy is tall and a 4’8” guy is short. If you disagree, then you just don’t understand what ‘tall’ and ‘short’ mean. Borderline cases complicate things, sure, but there’s broad agreement on what the clear-cut cases are. This is one of the reasons why some philosophers believe that we can give a semantic account of vagueness that amounts to more than “I dunno, language is complicated”. I don’t think the same is true for ‘woke’. The clear-cut cases are far more elusive because people use that term to refer to very different things. It’s not at all clear to me what it means to use that word in a competent manner.
Casting a black actor in a film or a lesbian character in a video is paradigmatically ‘woke’ to some people and not to others. Socialist and egalitarian politics are fundamentally woke unless you ask someone who considers themselves both a socialist and anti-woke. Wokeness is a hyper-individualist ideology, except maybe not, actually, it’s hyper-collectivist. These aren’t disagreements about borderline cases. These are disagreements about how you’re supposed to use the word in the first place. The central issue, in my view, isn’t that people can’t provide a satisfactory definition of ‘woke’. It’s that there are no clear rules about how to use the word properly, so you cannot insist that you’re using it to talk about an obvious, ubiquitous and socially significant phenomenon. I don’t need to know whether Joe Biden is ‘woke’ or not because he might be a borderline case – but I do need to know what things definitely are ‘woke’ and what things definitely aren’t. You need to be able to police meaning, to stand up and say “No, that’s not what ‘woke’ means. You’re talking about something else.” if you want to be taken seriously. If it’s nearly impossible to misuse a word then it’s equally difficult to use it to talk about anything specific.1
So I’m not impressed by any of the definitions on offer nor do I think the problem can be waved away by appealing to ambiguity or vagueness. But I don’t think it’s accurate to say the word is totally devoid of meaning either. Obviously when people call someone or something ‘woke’ they are trying to communicate something. I think the best explanation is that contemporary usage of the term ‘woke’ is a matter of ostension. When someone says that something is ‘woke’ they’re pointing at something they dislike and associate with (part of) left-of-centre cultural politics. The kinds of things that individuals consider ‘woke’ bear some (weak) resemblance to each other, though they need not resemble the things that other people call ‘woke’. People on the left who use the term tend to pick out things that they find merely annoying or censorious, whereas people on the right are usually talking about the contemporary left in its entirety and a few other things in addition. Lots of people can disagree about what’s ‘woke’ and what isn’t without that turning on the meaning of the word itself.
This doesn’t explain what it means to be ‘woke’ or ‘anti-woke’ but that’s a good thing. You don’t really know what someone means by ‘woke’ until you know what their beliefs are. When I read a headline like ‘Is the backlash over SVB collapse a threat to ‘woke’ investments?’ or ‘How Woke Is Too Woke For Australia’s Business Schools?’ I’m left with a very fuzzy idea about what the author is talking about. People’s views are much more clear when they explain the specific thing that they dislike and why they dislike it. Something everyone should try to do, whether they use the word or not, is be specific. Even more well-defined political buzzwords like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘socialist’ are no substitute for clarity and precision. I have little interest in listening to someone who wants to tell me that this or that policy is bad because it’s ‘neoliberal’ and I have even less interest in being told that something is bad because it’s ‘woke’. When I talk to someone or read something they’ve written I want to know exactly what they’re talking about. Now okay, sometimes you’re mad about some non-specific things that you can’t quite put into words. That’s okay, but that means you need more time to mull it over and flesh your point out. Think it over, ask your friends if they have any idea about how to express your thoughts in a more explicit way, write it down and look at it again later. You want people to take your beliefs seriously, so you should take them seriously too.
If you sincerely try to use these sorts of words in a clear and helpful way – by briefly explaining how you’re using it and connecting it to your broader argument – then fine, go right ahead. But far too often people use unhelpful terms to vaguely gesture at the very thing they’re supposed to be talking about. Explain what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. An article talking about a specific policy introduced by university administrators for a specific purpose and why that’s bad is clearer than an article talking about how ‘wokeness is ruining universities’. If you want to associate that with a broader social or political movement, go right ahead, but for the love of God try to be specific. At least then you won’t have everyone asking “But what does ‘woke’ mean, anyway?”
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Incidentally, I think some of the problems about the meaning of ‘woke’ that progressives raise aren’t really problems at all. Nathan J. Robinson suggests that one issue is that some people use the term ‘woke’ to talk about individuals and others use it to talk about ideas or institutions. But this is the case for almost every politically-charged word. A person can be a ‘socialist’ or a ‘conservative’ but so can an institution or an idea. Likewise Freddie DeBoer and Matt Walsh have different ideas about what anti-’woke’ politics entail in the same way that Michael Harrington and Ronald Reagan were anti-’communist’ in different ways.