The use of “woke” as a term of abuse by rightwingers has expanded rapidly in the recent past. A typical example is Deputy PM McCormack’s claim (rapidly refuted by fire chiefs) that the supposed relationship between climate change and the bushfire disaster arose from “the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital-city greenies.”

This is striking for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve never seen anyone in Australia describe themselves as “woke”. That’s not surprising: the term comes from the US and refers to changed consciousness of the structures of racial oppression there, and specifically to the position of black Americans. Being “woke” refers to things like the gaining of a new understanding the way blacks are portrayed in the media.

While Australia has plenty of problems with racism, particularly in relation to indigenous Australians, there hasn’t been any real transformation of consciousness here, or at least, anything sufficient to be announced as an awakening. So, the pejorative use of “woke” is yet another example of the dependence of the Australian right on culture war tropes imported from the US.

The same is true, by the way, of “political correctness”. The term was initially used ironically within the US left of people who were more concerned with taking the “correct line” than with effective action. It was then appropriated by the right to become the catchphrase we all know. In the Australian context, the term “ideologically sound” was used within the left, in just the same way as “politically correct”, but our local rightwingers never picked it up.

A second striking observation is that, having no real referent in Australia, “woke” is being used as an all purpose pejorative for anything the right doesn’t like. There’s nothing “woke” about being worried about climate change – the entire scientific community has been shouting about it for decades.

The extreme case, so far, is Janet Albrechtsen in the Oz (no link), using the term to describe veteran corporate gadfly Stephen Mayne, also notable as the founder of Crikey and previously an advisor to Jeff Kennett. Mayne certainly makes trouble for the cosy network of the Australian corporate elite, but describing shareholder activism* as “woke” stretches the term beyond any possible limit. In the current case, he is campaigning for more independent directors, while Albrechtsen (in a very confused piece) plays the gender card against him,

  • To be clear, I’m not referring to the kind of activism done by groups like Market Forces, pushing for divestment from fossil fuels. Mayne’s typically complaint is that boards aren’t capitalist enough preferring a comfortable life to their fiduciary obligation to maximize shareholder value.

14 thoughts on “Woke

  1. I occasionally see wildly inappropriate American items people have shared to their Facebook timelines. That old bumper sticker “I’m a gun owner – AND I VOTE!” is their precursor. A recent one on our local community page (quickly removed by moderators) said something like “I won’t be voting for you if you don’t get rid of the illegals”. Another I remember deplored the fact schoolkids are no longer required to recite the pledge of allegiance every morning. And of course bitter objections to the liberals’ ‘war on Christmas’ will be hurled at us soon.

    I can only conclude some Australian right-wingers are irresistibly drawn to the culture of complaint and resentment that characterises their American counterparts. The exact content doesn’t matter much; whether it’s ‘woke’ or ‘snowflake’ or something else, if it expresses hostility to the damn lefties it’s all good.

  2. / Another I remember deplored the fact schoolkids are no longer required to recite the pledge of allegiance every morning.

    I m sure Betty is hurt.

  3. Another insult du jour used universally the Right is “virtue signalling”, often in situations where it makes no sense. The practice has spread like the Ebola virus and is repeated like a mantra. You’d almost think the only people they read, listen to and get ideas from is each other.

  4. Smith 9, you are correct. Sneering at and insulting persons is of course an ad hominem attack. The attacks from the right that we are talking about here are typically racist, sexist and classist ad hominem attacks. When used by white right wingers they are typically directed at blacks or non-whites in general, women, workers, poor people and leftist intellectuals and supporters.

    If you observe arguments which start out with real or apparent logical or ethical arguments and appeals, you will find that some persons who start losing such arguments on logical or ethical grounds, or who start losing supporters or influence, then resort to using sneering and insulting ad hominem attacks. These attacks are signals to their “tribal” supporters. They signal to supporters “Jump into the argument / fight to support me because I am losing on my own”. They also signal, “Let’s escalate this to a nasty argument and then let’s further escalate this to naked violence.”

    The right are preparing to escalate the argument to naked violence. Trump has already made scarcely concealed appeals to his supporters to bring (reactionary) violence back into political and ethical disagreements. The Right are losing the logical and ethical arguments. They are also losing the economic arguments. Their economic prescriptions are making most people, apart from the elites, worse off. When the reactionary rightist elites begin to lose arguments in a democratic context, they begin to fear losing their elite position. The next tool in the kitbag (after lies, obfuscations and general cons) is raw violence applied by using the state monopoly on violence.

    The state monopoly on violence is a double-edged sword. Even a democratic polity needs an ultimate state monopoly on violence albeit with strong oversight, checks and balances. If even the democratic state does not have an effective state monopoly on violence then criminals and warlords can and will take over and foreign powers will invade. However, the reactionary right can take over this state monopoly on violence and use it against the people unless the people are vigilant.

  5. I am wondering if the “woke” meme didn’t come from a different source. A way of turning the tables on the red-pilled idea. Being red-pilled is the kind of thing that might happen to you if you contemplate the collapse of building 7 long enough. If you do so then you realise that the Arab conspiracy theory cannot hold up and you become “woke”. So for awhile being red-pilled and being “woke” meant the same thing. Now the word has been hijacked.

    So by applying the word to people, who advocate reflexively every campaign coming from the oligarchy; this is a pretty good way of making sure most people stay “unwoke.” If the oligarchy wants to use gays as their avante garde, then all these woke CEO’s come out and make an example of a Rugby player. This sort of thing. Just an unquestioning goose-stepping to financial pig central. Peter Beattie isn’t woke at all. The word is being used as its antonym. He’s an un-woke, un-nuanced, unthinking buffoon.

  6. Why oh why does anyone read or post such, only increasing reactions and polarization? Oh well, here I go… into mea culpa land. Is it ad hom to point out JA’s
    delusions of grandeur?

    In the “never a truer word spoken” category” JQ said; “The extreme case, so far, is Janet Albrechtsen in the Oz”…

    How extreme? Comparing yourself to MLK and papal indulgences (slip’o the tounge) no less.

    See last para…

    “The delusions are generally fantastic, often with a supernatural, science-fictional, or religious bent. In colloquial usage, one who overestimates one’s own abilities, talents, stature or situation is sometimes said to have “delusions of grandeur”. This is generally due to excessivepride, rather than any actual delusions. Grandiose delusions or delusions of grandeur can also be associated with megalomania.[citation needed] [ Citation: see above]

  7. the word religion keeps coming up (they are legion?)

    and where and how did “iconic” manage to infiltrate day to day language?
    it’s fairly recent, i can’t remember where i first saw it in print but it was a while before it entered conversation.
    an icon is a worshipped image that requires specific rites when it is decided (by who-knows) to be at the end of its useful “life”.
    how it applies to vegemite etc, is beyond me.

  8. Like many words, meaning changes over time. In the internet era, the assumption of meaning often seems to change very rapidly.

    So while that may be the origins of “woke”, it is now used pejoratively by many across the political spectrum.

    Although the word (in its current usage) may be new, the things it is being used to describe are not.

    As an example to show that it’s not just a pejorative used by the right-wing, I’d suggest checking out the song “Woke Blokes” by young Aboriginal singer/songwriter Thelma Plum on her new album. The basic theme of the central “I’m so sick of these woke blokes – they’re not like me” refrain is basically of young blokes doing all they can to conspicuously spotlight that they are totally politically switched in terms of gender equality, cause du jour, etc without actually living those standards in reality. So more using it as a term for people with double standards &/or those who use the in-favour issue or terminology of the moment to exclude others.

    Behaviour which can obviously occur across the political spectrums.

    (& @KT2 – I presume you meant ML, rather than MLK)

  9. The evolution and appropriation of vogue terms from the USA is not uncommon.

    The usage of “ideologically sound” and “woke culture” overlap, but former is more commonly relates to ideological substance and the latter to form. The latter focuses on aesthetics, representation, and cultural consumption and production.

  10. There is often a core of truth though. Some left identity types do have glass jaws; they are snowflakes. And woke can be shorthand for sanctimonious tossers, generally from private schools.

    The left should hit back with its own pejorative terms but it doesn’thave a sense of humour.

  11. Andrew Bartlett thanks. Must have been “indulgences (slip’o the tounge)”! The delusion still stands.

    Here is a start Historyintime “Some left [ right & sideways ] identity types do have glass jaws; they are snowflakes”

  12. John (and Andrew) I think there is something more insidious going on. The speed with which words are adopted by the right, especially when they appropriate words that started in protest, isn’t explainable merely through the increased speed of transmission of language through global public forums. Before ‘woke’ there was ‘virtue signalling’, for example.

    I suspect far more pernicious causes and see the influence of the Atlas Network. For anyone who doesn’t know it, Goggle it.

  13. Andrew – thanks for this. Obviously, “woke’ in more or less its original meaning, made it into Aboriginal political discourse here before its adoption as an insult by the right. But I remain confident that the rightwing use was imported directly from the US, not a reaction to anything said here.

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