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The Woke Enigma
Bewilderment, belittlement, and marginalization of the uninitiated is the point.
Several years ago, I was observing a session of the Utah state legislature, as I often do. On the floor, they were discussing cultural issues, and one of the legislators read off a definition of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It was obvious that more than a few legislators had never heard such a term before, and some of them were quite flabbergasted at the inclusion of yet another addition to the dizzying array of new terms and labels for various groups of people that have come to make up much of our cultural dialogue.
Meanwhile, in the observation booths, I noticed that more than a few observers were rolling their eyes, and some were even sneering at the apparent aloofness of the legislators to such a term that had already been well-established and used among progressive elites and academics.
This is how I define “woke.”
Not the terms themselves. Not even the thought processes behind the terms or the political goals of those more likely to use such terms. It’s the scorn and the contempt directed at those who aren’t in the know, are not “woke.” Bewilderment, belittlement, and marginalization of the uninitiated is the point.
This is why I think the recent experience of Bethany Mandel, who wrote a book about “woke” culture but stumbled when asked to define it in a recent interview, so properly encapsulates what “woke” culture is. For, while commentators and intellectuals have offered many interesting and compelling definitions of “woke” culture in the last week, the episode of Mandel tripping up in defining it off the cuff and her treatment afterward affords us the true working definition of “woke.”
Being “woke” is a process of initiation into the use of terms, ideas, and perspectives on culture and society that is often so complex and enigmatic that a clear line of separation develops between those who are “woke” and those who are not. “Woke” culture cannot truly be defined by those who are not its disciples. And those who are not “woke” become the enemy. They become the sources of society’s problems, targets for derision whose voices and influence must be opposed and canceled. If you’re “woke,” then you’re awake to things that those who are asleep or refuse to wake up cannot see or explain.
The idea of “being woke” is not a consistent thought process or a fully fleshed-out ideology. To understand it, it’s best to think of it more as a zeitgeist among certain very socially progressive thinkers and activists. Nailing down its actual provisions, goals, or thought processes is complex and nye impossible because it’s a moving target designed more to separate those who are “woke” and those who are not than necessarily to organize for consistent political aspirations.
This is not very dissimilar from the same problem faced over the last five years in defining Trumpism. Every time writers and pundits feel like they’ve nailed down the core of what defines Trumpism and what motivates its followers, the paradigm shifts completely. For example, is Trumpism a draconian isolationism (“it’s time to end the forever wars”), or is it unrestrained jingoism (“I would bomb the s*** out of [ISIS]”? Is it both? Is it whatever Trump says?
This is why I like the term zeitgeist so much in defining things like Trumpism and “woke” culture. They are characterized by what they oppose and by ideas, words, sayings, and viewpoints that are more intended to separate the initiated from the uninitiated than to lay out a fully coherent way of thinking. They’re launching off points for justifying different flavors of tribalism, and they often shift and evolve with events and in response to their identified opponents.
So, sure, it seems silly that Bethany Mandel is a prominent writer on the problems of “woke” culture who stumbled when asked to define it. But that’s the point. She can’t define it because it’s not meant to be defined by outsiders. She might struggle to define it instinctively, but her experience in the last week exemplifies it. She not only doesn’t speak the language of “woke” culture, she is guilty of wrong speak and of holding views that place her squarely outside of initiated progressive culture. And so, her inability to define “woke” culture sets her up for ridicule, hostility, and cancellation.
By becoming a victim of the woke zeitgeist, she has successfully defined it, albeit not through her words. Rather, she defined it by becoming a case study in its reality through the experience of having her derision, for a moment in time, become its cause de jour.