“Woke” Is A Four Letter Word

During the waning months of the Trump administration, I received an email from a conservative friend in which he railed against a word to which, up until then, I had not given much thought.

While unsure at the time of what “woke” referred to, I could see that he was using it to belittle liberals and their policies and attitudes that Republicans regard as repugnant.

I have since watched with a mixture of amusement and dismay their abuse of this term as a catchword to further inflame their base. It serves as a code for all the things, most of which I see as good things, they oppose and as a dog whistle to their most egregiously prejudiced constituents. It has become a stand-in for other “four” letter words such as the one beginning with “N.”

Study groups have determined that, while Republicans continually employ the term, they, themselves, are unclear as to its meaning. Its ambiguity, of course, only serves to enhance its usefulness.

Imprecise multifunctional pejoratives such as “woke,” “cancel” and “CRT” have become double sided verbal cudgels in the hands of Republicans who, for example, claim to be victims of the “cancel culture” while simultaneously employing it to beat back liberal opinions.

As the American flag and the cross have been appropriated and defiled by White Christian Nationalists to symbolize their un-American and Un-Christian priorities and values, “woke,” a term coined in Black culture meaning to “awaken” to our system’s failure to uphold fundamental American principles of equality and social justice, has likewise been appropriated. In abusing it, conservatives vilify fundamental principles, values and ideals. These they loudly trumpet, yet undermine in deed.

How can one not be astounded at such shameless hypocrisy or not marvel at the ability of conservative lawmakers and commentators to state with straight faces utter lies and distortions of reality? Like my former patients who employed the primitive defense mechanism, projection, they paint their opponents with the same brush that colors their own behavior while apparently believing themselves to be virtuous and innocent victims. Unlike those patients, however, they do it consciously, intentionally and maliciously twisting not only facts but the very meaning of words.

The many examples of this, such as complaining about the “bias” of the mainstream press while supporting outright propaganda machines posing as news outlets need not be itemized here.

There is striking similarity between this and the recent speech by Vladimir Putin asserting that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was an act of self-defense against Ukrainian aggression and the power hungry West. It is no coincidence that objections to our support of Ukraine, which, should it fall might mark the beginning of global conflict and the end of liberal democracy worldwide, comes from the extreme right-wing of the Republican party.

Conservatives rail against a word and the movement it evokes because, should most Americans become woke to its original meaning, Republicans might be stripped of their accustomed dominant role in American society and their grasp on the political power that facilitates their limited agenda, the preservation of the status quo in the service White Christian Americans and big moneyed interests.

While conservatives are hard pressed to clearly define “woke,” like Justice Potter Stewart who struggled to define “obscenity” in the Jacobellis case of 1964 they “know it when I see it.” And they see it everywhere and in everything that threatens to impede their mission and to expose their mendacity.

Encapsulated in this pithy term lies a universe of diverse and, sometimes, contradictory concepts. Though reactionaries gleefully employ it, they seem to be unaware of what their way of using it reveals about themselves– their deceit, hubris and corruption– as they vigorously strive to undermine all that this nation should represent and embrace.

As one whose stock in trade is language, who has come to revere it and has struggled to use it artfully and with clarity, I am acutely aware of the great power in words. The abuse of the term “woke” in the hands of conservative forces stands out as a masterpiece of deception, misdirection, deflection and distortion, and, at the core of this linguistic sleight of hand, lies the essence of a well organized and concerted campaign to rend, irreparably, the very fabric of our democratic system.

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