The Sounder

I originally penned this piece before the events in Charlottesville and US President Donald Trump’s foul and stomach-turning comments defending white supremacist neo-Nazis and equivocating the racists with groups protesting against them. The story, at first, was a simple column about a word and its meaning, and what a turn-on it is for language-obsessives like me to see how change can grip even the most literal of terms – how an adjective can go from functional one day to charged the next.

Charlottesville, Trump and the battle for America's soul give this column more urgency, have perhaps made it more political, but for that I make no apologies.

The word I refer to, as you have may have guessed, is ‘woke’. Once it simply invoked the state after sleep, but in June this year woke officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary in a new socially-conscious and online-friendly form.

To be ‘woke’ in 2017 is not just to be sensitive to social issues and how they shape the world we live in, but also to call these issues out, loudly, online and offline. It implies a distrust of elites, imparts exasperation with the status quo, and connotes action and change. It also, as the OED has it, refers specifically to racism:

woke, adjective: Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in 'stay woke'.

The racial reference comes from its adoption and regular use in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, from which it’s spread virally. Says the American Merriam-Webster dictionary’s online blog: “Stay woke became a watch word in parts of the black community for those who were self-aware, questioning the dominant paradigm and striving for something better… Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, woke became a word that (as well as) signalling awareness of injustice or racial tension, was a word of action. Activists were woke and called on others to stay woke.”

Erykah Badu used the term as early as 2008 in her record ‘Master Teacher,’ though the OED notes that ‘woke’ has been used figuratively, “to refer to being ‘aware’ or ‘well-informed’ in a political or cultural sense,” since the mid-20th century.

Who are the awakened? In a sign of the times – Trump, Brexit, religious insanity, war, racist cop-killings, xenophobia, dictators, dishonest politicians, piles of uncollected garbage in Beirut and no electricity, catastrophic climate change, infringements on personal freedoms via governments, state institutions – where they exist – and data-collecting tech giants – they tend to be young and naturally Left-leaning (though not exclusively).

In Lebanon the young (predominantly) ‘woke’ when they discovered that Beirut’s garbage was not being collected in 2015 and 2016 not due to an inability to do so but because the issue was being used as a political football by elected representatives, so they went down to the streets to say enough was enough.

In the UK the urge for change crystalized after the Brexit vote, when the nation’s youth suddenly realised that their elders (for the most part) had taken their European futures away from them. And in the US it manifested in not just the Black Lives Matter movement but in the genuine outrage that arose with the election to the Presidency of Donald Trump – someone with clearly stated misogynist and xenophobic attitudes, and now arguably dangerously close to racist ones.

With Charlottesville and in the light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative President Trump has adopted it’s fair to state that not only the young and Left-leaning are ‘woke’, but all of us with a basic knowledge of history and the evils of fascism. With ‘woke Twitter’ having taken off as the shorthand for describing social media activists, numerous advocacy and protest groups taking up the mantra, and even kids in school playgrounds using the word, what’s clear is that no one’s sleeping now, and they're unlikely to be for the foreseeable future.

Stay woke. – RS