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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mailman

The Problem with Woke…

And the Pain of Word Whiplash.

Language is a powerful thing. It’s the way we communicate with each other, establish relationships, and create a sense of community. The words we choose signal how we look at and understand the people and world around us. For instance, if we talk about someone as being “disadvantaged,” the implication is that person has been locked out of some sort of social or economic opportunity that the rest of society enjoys. Or when we use the term “people of color,” it suggests diversity in world of, well… whiteness. Language plays a huge role in how we perceive others, and it’s important to keep in mind how fluid it actually is. It changes all the time, primarily to reflect shifts in society and culture. The meaning and inference of certain words and phrases changes so fast these days I’ve actually had to invent one of my own. “Word Whiplash!” What’s okay and acceptable to say one day, the next day can get you “cancelled”. When I recently told someone that I felt “gypped” by an Amazon purchase I made online, I was immediately schooled on the fact that I can no longer use that term because it’s offensive to Gypsies! Ouch! My neck!

To further complicate matters, not everyone in the alleged offended group can agree on what is and isn’t offensive. Take me for example. I hear the word “Queer”, and suddenly I’m ten years old and back on the playground being bullied. I lived through the 80’s, the AIDS crisis, and the gay rights movement. I was there when the word was “reclaimed”. But I’m also a gay man of a certain age who has a hard time accepting “Queer” as a term of endearment. Call me old school. So, the problem now becomes, how do we deal with the ever changing and evolving ideas around language and what’s acceptable and what’s not?

Right now, we’re at a crossroads in this country. We stand at the intersection of extreme liberalism, extreme conservatism, and I shudder to say, “wokeness”. Now just in case you need a little catching up, pre–BlackLives Matter, the call to “stay woke” was a phrase used in the black community as a warning to stay aware and alert to the deceits of other people. Namely, white folks. It began with a social media hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin back in 2012. The movement grew nationally in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. “Stay woke” became a warning call for the movement and was used in the context of being aware of discrimination and police brutality. In the few years that followed, like with Elvis and “Hound Dog”, liberals took it and made their own.

While the extreme left uses “woke” as a concept to force change, they’ve taken “political correctness” to dangerous new levels. At the same time, the extreme right resists that change and takes the idea of “wokeness”, free will and freedom of expression, flips it on its head, and uses it as a weapon against their perceived enemies. Moderates are stuck flailing somewhere in the middle. The way that terms like “woke” and “wokeness” are being used outside the context of the Black Lives Matter, seems to have little connection to their original intent. Coopting it and altering it from its original meaning is arguably the least woke thing you can do. So, now what?

Somewhere between redefining language to adjust to shifting cultural attitudes and using words as a weapon to create fear around change, there exists a space for understanding and acceptance. But that space has to be created by and for each and every one of us. Even the people we don’t agree with, and even in the face of extreme opposition. For most of us it’s not out of the realm of possibility to strike a balance between social awareness and acceptance of different viewpoints. But, outside influences can easily taint our opinions. The media plays a huge role in shaping how we see and understand it all, and spending a disproportionate amount of time taking in sensational and biased information can critically alter our perception. The irony in the Fox News sales pitch of being “fair and balanced” should be lost on no one. So, reducing the constant influx of news and social media is something we should all consider. It can actually create the mental space to process all of this more effectively and leave more room for ideas with less bias.

Cancel culture and intolerance gets us nowhere. It prevents constructive dialogue and eliminates the potential for growth and understanding. But rejecting "wokeness" doesn't necessarily mean ignoring inequality, biases, and racism. The balance lies in creating a space of empathy, compassion, and education. Be aware. Speak out. Be politically active. But at the same time help create space for opposing viewpoints. We can’t exist in a democracy without them, even if the idea of what democracy is has experienced its own form of whiplash. When we allow for differing viewpoints and do it with a true understanding of the humanity that exists in all of us, true progress will be made and “wokeness” can be put to bed once and for all.

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