Flat White

A pledge to stop using 'Woke'

5 April 2022

12:00 PM

5 April 2022

12:00 PM

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.’

It might seem cliché to reference Orwell, whose novels are predictably brought up in many a conversation about the woes of contemporary culture. However, there is a timeless quality to some of his observations. ‘Orwellian’ need not be a throwaway catch-all, the descriptor of choice for anyone wishing to over-exaggerate the totalitarian nature of modern society. In fact, Orwell himself would probably prefer that we didn’t.

1984 is the novel of language. Specifically, it is a plea to readers to understand the importance of words, their meaning, and their power. Out of respect for Orwell (the poor man probably has splinters at this point from endlessly turning over in his grave) and communication, I plan to stop using ‘Woke’ in its contemporary form.

‘Woke’, as a term to describe being awake and attentive to issues of social (particularly racial) justice, has its origins in African-American slang. However, its use took off with the Black Lives Matter movements of 2014 and the rest is history. ‘Woke’, is now widely employed, and understood to mean something more than just the simple fact of being physically awake rather than asleep.

The idea that language can evolve is a beautiful concept. As a bookworm, a lover of language, a dictionary devotee, and someone with a crush on communication, I firmly believe this should be encouraged. The primary purpose of language should be to enhance our ability to communicate, and to communicate widely. Expanding English so that it facilitates this can only be a good thing. When we have more words in which to express our thoughts, when others can comprehend the subtle meanings behind the language we use, we become a more connected society. We understand ourselves and others better.

On the other hand, we should not be flippant about this evolution and expansion of meaning. Language is about communicating, but it is also a means to shut down communication. Take ‘Woke’, for example. It’s become a term to describe more than just physical consciousness, but it’s also become a cliché in the manner of ‘Orwellian’.

For those who believe that progressive social movements have gone too far in the quest for equity, ‘Woke’ is an insult. It describes someone militant and obsessive and out of touch with reality. There are plenty of examples of this politicisation of speech, whereby words take on different meanings depending upon the political alignments of the person in question. To use ‘Woke’ as a jibe, to use it to mock those whose viewpoints we don’t agree with, is lazy communication. Its intention is to silence, to indicate that we disagree with a person’s politics and refuse to engage with them. This is a threat to language.

It’s not contradictory to say that freedom of speech is the greatest threat to free speech.

Expression is a positive when it is open, when it encourages others to express their thoughts, and for us to understand and respond in kind. Language resolves differences when it isn’t abused and words aren’t politicised or imbued with underlying meanings: good or bad, realist or idealist, individualistic or community-focused.

So, to myself. I would describe myself as politically rightward leaning, and I hope having said this, that phrases like nut-job, anti-vaxxer, and racist are not appearing in your head. For me, right describes a philosophy embracing minimal government. We spend so much of our time complaining about government that I personally believe we’d be better with less of it, not more of it, or even a different version of it.

This is not supposed to be about me airing my political views though. This is me, admitting that I have used ‘Woke’ to describe people whose politics differ from my own. That is me being lazy. That is me adopting our contemporary Newspeak, and using language as a tool to suppress communication rather than encourage it. Orwell knew that language was important, that expression which promotes expression is powerful.

Using ‘Woke’ as an insult undermines my own love of language, of conversation. So, this is me pledging to stop.

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