Woke: The Annexation of Meaning
April 13, 2023
What is “wokeness?”
The political climate in the U.S. today can be more than a bit confusing to the average person who doesn’t follow it much.
Both sides use the same words but, strangely enough, both mean different things, depending on who’s saying it and in what contexts. Terms like “fascist,” “communist” and, the buzzword of the decade, “woke.”
“But how,” you may wonder, “can a word be used by different people in different contexts to mean entirely different things? Don’t we have a dictionary to define terms so this kind of ambiguity doesn’t happen?”
To an extent, this question must be asked any time a new term is introduced into the common vocabulary or a word is repurposed to mean something else; however, to get to the bottom of this rabbit hole, there are a few basic concepts to understand, starting with the basic concepts of two fancy-sounding words, lexicon and syntax.
Lexicon is, simply put, the vocabulary of a language. It is a collection of words agreed by speakers of the language to have meanings in conversation.
The lexicon has no forward or backward way of reading: brown, lazy, jump, fox, dog, quick, the.
Syntax, on the other hand, is the ordering of words to generate meaning in context; the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
In both these cases, the same words are here, but it’s only through proper ordering of the words that we understand the idea being portrayed. Knowing what words go where creates the underlying framework of contextual understanding; we know the fox is brown and the dog is lazy because the syntax is correct, and we know what a fox and dog are due to our understanding of the English lexicon.
But where this understanding has seemingly broken down in political discussion is in the conflation of connotation and denotation, or what words mean in context and what their dictionary, “set” definition means.
When we talk about a dog, we typically imagine a four-legged furry friend with a lolling tongue and a happily wagging tail, but what if we begin using the term to refer to a person? A dog is a common insult for a promiscuous man, especially among women, and the term can also be used, usually by men, to call someone unattractive.
Conversation often makes which definition is currently being used obvious, connotation fills in the gaps in our understanding and is usually what an English teacher will describe as “context clues” when coming across new words while reading. It takes into account the surrounding words and changes the definition of the new word to be more in line with the context.
This brings us back to our main question, what is “wokeness?” Depending on which side you ask, the word “woke” can either be an insult, a compliment, a statement of fact, or any combination thereof.
Progressive and liberally-minded people see the term as it was originally intended; it’s the view that inequalities exist and that there is a need to address them. Conservatives use the term as a pejorative and use it to condemn initiatives addressing workplace inequality, education disparities, economic disenfranchisement and other issues dealing mostly with minority rights and their adjacent consequences.
This type of disconnect is nothing new for the American political system. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the “states’ rights” argument over slavery was used to add a veneer of legitimacy to the desire for southern states to rebel in an attempt to hold onto their “peculiar institution” of slavery.
The “forced busing” arguments of yesteryear used the same strategy of obfuscating the general discontent around the desegregation of schools and channeling the political energy into fighting attempts to integrate, specifically through creating a system where White children were institutionally better off than Black children by providing more money for White schools than Black schools.
Similarly, when conservatives use the term “woke” in a modern context, they are not admitting the need for institutional reform in the U.S. but rather attempting to demonize any idea that would seek to address the inequality by labeling it as overtly political, overly ideological or simply for not comporting with their understanding of their own religion.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is currently one of the most outspoken Republicans on the idea of “wokeness,” using his institutional power to limit class curricula surrounding Black and LGBT+ history, retaliate against those he deems political opponents and create new institutions specifically for the purpose of expanding his authority.
For him, and many in the Republican party, “wokeness” is a social disease that must be fought and evokes the ever-present struggle for the soul of the nation in their eyes. This legitimizes the idea that power must be expanded and consolidated by a strong leader in order to unify the disparate factions in order to finally end the threat to the nation; so, they have to dominate the conversation by defining the terms of any discussion and refuse to see from other points of view.
By claiming the terminology is inherently evil and repeating refrains on the dangers it presents to society ad nauseum, they can make even the most mundane of concepts, like board games and housing, into social ills that need to be rooted out.
Unfortunately, a constant diet of demonizing language coupled with a confident assertion that the language is accurate and objective can make it difficult to have a conversation with those who believe the misinformation, leading to the scenario we currently find ourselves in where people can’t seem to agree on what constitutes reality.
Conservative strategy for decades has been to supplant the liberal, reality-based way of thinking with one of religion, nationalism and American cultural power and to skew our perception of the world to better fit one of constant, holy struggle.
But, in order to do that, they have to be able to define the terms by which the conversation takes place, and the general unpopularity of their most recent attempt to annex the language around “wokeness” shows just how possible it may be to remove the delusion perpetuated by their constant attacks.
So, keep your mind open, keep listening to what’s being said by news media and politicians, but remember to remain guarded. Language is complicated, and a masterful manipulator of language can create a reality believable enough to fool even the greatest of minds.