Woke: Compliment or criticism, it is now fuelling the culture wars (2024)

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Woke: Compliment or criticism, it is now fuelling the culture wars (1)Image source, Getty Images

By Jack Fenwick

Westminster Hour, BBC Radio 4

As MPs paid tribute to outgoing Speaker John Bercow on Halloween 2019, a piece of parliamentary history was made when veteran Labour MP Harriet Harman stood up to speak.

"You've been on what they described as a political journey," she told Mr Bercow, whose views famously moved to the left during his 22 years as an MP. "I would say you are woke now."

For the first time, the W-word had entered the House of Commons.

In the two years since it's become a regular feature of political debates, used as a badge of honour by some on the left, but more often as an insult by those on the right.

Its origins, however, don't fit neatly into either camp.

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"The person who many people consider coined it was [the novelist] William Melvin Kelley," says Elijah Watson, news and culture editor of American music website Okayplayer and author of a series of articles called The Origin of Woke.

"In 1962 he published a New York Times essay titled If You're Woke, You Dig It.

"This piece really foreshadowed woke's more genuine and sincere and black-centric origins, and how it would inevitably become appropriated by the masses.

"It wasn't really until the late 2000s, early 2010s, when it gained more of this kind of political context. Although I would say that's been there underlying, it never explicitly became that until recently."

Image source, Getty Images

In 2008 singer-songwriter Erykah Badu used the phrase "Stay woke" in her song Master Teacher.

"It then took a new life of its own when she started tweeting it," says Watson.

"'Stay woke' really is about staying aware of injustices happening both in America and abroad."

But as the phrase became more popular, Watson says woke lost its meaning.

"There isn't that sincerity and that genuineness that woke may have had once before, because it's no longer in the possession of the people who made it," he says.

Eventually, "Stay woke" was distilled into little more than an ironic online joke, but as the term has found its way into Washington and Westminster, it has become more divisive.

Compliment or insult?

"People are very split on what it means," says Bobby Duffy, director of King's College London's Policy Institute.

His team has been researching the UK's culture wars, including what people think of the word woke.

"A quarter of people think of it as a compliment, a quarter of people think it's an insult and the rest either don't know or have never even heard of the term," Prof Duffy says.

"Among the young, over half of them think it's a compliment, but only 13% of the oldest group think it's a compliment."

The Policy Institute's research suggests the word's meaning has started to change once more.

"It's been much more linked in the media to debates around cancel culture," says Prof Duffy.

"That is something that does land more with people in some ways than some of the more difficult inequality debates around race or gender."

Image source, Reuters

Prof Duffy says an international survey suggests the UK is "the most concerned" of all countries about people having to "be too careful about the things that we say".

Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg is among those who has invoked woke to criticise people on the left during debates about statues of historical figures and free speech on university campuses.

The right of centre Spectator magazine's deputy political editor Katy Balls says some Conservative MPs and ministers are using the word in a pejorative way in the hope of connecting with new Tory voters in the north of England.

"They believe that, when it comes to their new coalition of voters, one of the things these voters feel very strongly about is patriotism," she says.

"You are signalling to your voters that you stand up for traditional values and they think that does play very well."

Culture war

But there's a growing concern among some Conservatives that focusing on issues in the so-called "red wall" parliamentary seats previously held by Labour could play badly in the party's traditional heartlands.

"[They're] very uncomfortable with this idea of having a culture war. They don't really want to have a war on woke," says Balls.

Ash Sarkar, contributing editor for the left-wing Novara Media group, says the increasing use of the word woke reflects a more general change in politics in the age of the internet.

She argues that differences on issues such as climate change and race are fuelling its use as a negative term - and that it has become a "convenient vehicle for lots of right-wing anxieties about a generational divide in political outlook".

Prof Duffy agrees that understanding of the word woke is "almost certainly" becoming more negative, but adds: "This is a new term for the vast majority of the population. People are still forming their views and those types of discussions will have a big effect on people's perceptions of the term."

So how do African Americans feel about a word coined as a largely positive term being used as an insult in politics on both sides of the Atlantic?

"At a certain point, there was a frustration," says Watson, "but now it's more of an indifference.

"Kelley was speaking to how black slang becomes appropriated in 1962. We're almost 2022 and we're still dealing with that same problem."

Listen to Jack's report at 22:00 BST on Sunday, on BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour.

Related Topics

  • John Bercow
  • Harriet Harman

As an enthusiast deeply versed in the topic of contemporary political language and cultural shifts, I'm well-positioned to discuss the nuanced origins and evolving connotations of the term "woke." Drawing upon a wealth of knowledge encompassing linguistic evolution, social dynamics, and political discourse, I can shed light on the multifaceted nature of this term.

The article you've provided, published on August 21, 2021, delves into the emergence and appropriation of the term "woke" in political debates, particularly within the context of UK politics. The term gained prominence during a tribute to outgoing Speaker John Bercow in 2019, when Labour MP Harriet Harman described him as "woke." The article traces the origins of the term to a 1962 essay by novelist William Melvin Kelley, noting its more recent association with political contexts in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Furthermore, the article explores the evolution of "woke" through cultural references, such as Erykah Badu's use of "Stay woke" in her song Master Teacher in 2008. The phrase initially conveyed a sense of awareness of injustices, particularly in the realms of race and social justice. However, the article suggests that over time, the term has lost some of its sincerity and genuineness, evolving into a more divisive and ironic expression.

The piece discusses the polarization surrounding the term, with some considering it a badge of honor on the left and others using it as an insult on the right. Bobby Duffy, director of King's College London's Policy Institute, presents research findings indicating that people's perceptions of the term vary widely, with some viewing it as a compliment and others as an insult.

Additionally, the article highlights the shifting meanings of "woke" in relation to debates around cancel culture and the concern, particularly in the UK, about being too careful with speech. Conservative figures, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, employ the term in debates about historical statues and free speech, with the aim of connecting with voters who prioritize traditional values and patriotism.

The article concludes by addressing the growing concern among some conservatives about engaging in a "culture war" and the potential negative impact on the party's traditional base. The use of "woke" is seen as reflective of broader political changes and serves as a convenient vehicle for expressing right-wing anxieties about generational divides on issues like climate change and race.

In summary, the term "woke" has evolved from its sincere and black-centric origins into a politically charged and divisive term, with its meaning shaped by cultural references, political debates, and the ongoing dynamics of the digital age. The article provides a comprehensive overview of the term's journey, its various interpretations, and its impact on contemporary political discourse.

Woke: Compliment or criticism, it is now fuelling the culture wars (2024)
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