The War of Words

“They called it woke but it was being aware. It was defensive, it was what any mother would tell their Black boys, ‘you better watch out, be aware of your surroundings, you know that you move through space and time in a different manner than white people. You better be woke.’” — Peggy Parks Miller

Few words have become so divisive in the English language in the last few years as the word woke – and all across the political spectrum. The issue goes beyond the word, of course, but the word is aptly representative of an increasing antagonism permeating our societies, characterised by other terms such as identity politics and culture wars

Politicians on the right refer to wokeism as an ideology that needs to be crushed. This attack is aimed broadly at anyone fighting for political and social justice, or simply against the status quo. 

But it is also increasingly divisive among the so-called left, including within institutions and social justice movements, where anyone who doesn’t hold “correct” social or political opinions risks being punished. Some have asked whether woke or wokeness might even have become a form of snobbery. 

How did this happen and why is it important?

The word woke comes from awake and essentially refers to being aware. Documented cases of the words’ uses go back to labour movements in the United States in the early twentieth century. The word later began to appear in a number of blues songs by Black musicians.

One such song was by Huddie William Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, in which he warned young Black men to “be careful… best stay woke, keep your eyes open.” The song was a reference to the plight of the so-called Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine young Black men wrongly accused and convicted of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. 

While the sentences were eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, the case became so well known that some suggest it spurred the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly called on people to ‘remain awake’ during tremendous social changes that were taking place.

Fast forward to today and the word has almost become synonymous with ‘political correctness.’ But the term political correctness also emerged from people on the left mindful of injustices, who used the term in an ironic, self-deprecating way. Just like with woke, the term was then hijacked by the right and referred to as an ideology that threatens our way of life, as Michael Harriot writes, it has become “an attempt for the right to rebrand bigotry as a resistance movement.”

But why is it also dividing people allegedly striving for a more just society? 

Our hyper-connected world which enables access to information from across the globe, means that we must all be aware of widespread injustices, and with that comes the implied obligation that we hold the proper kinds of opinions. And if we don’t, if we use the wrong language or ask the wrong question, we risk being punished, ostracised, fired, or cancelled. This is paralysing more and more professions, institutions and movements. That is what woke has come to mean.

In Left is Not Woke, Philosopher Susan Neiman, suggests that there is an abandonment on the left of leftist principles, including universalism (instead of tribalism, where we fight only for our own tribe) and a commitment to a clear distinction between power and justice. Unfortunately, she says that today “many claims about justice are actually about power grabbing.” So people might fight a personal cause in the name of justice when what they are seeking is power, and usually for themselves or their own so-called tribe.

One explanation put forward by activists is that with the rise of fascist politics and ideologies, especially in the Western world, we have realised how little power we actually have to change the world. Because of that, we turn inwards, we seek to change things around us, and we become increasingly impatient and critical of each other.

But in doing so, are we not abandoning the real work of persuasion? We expect people around us to share our opinions but we’re often not willing to spend time to really explain things, to bring people along, and use shared language. 

But that means we take for granted that people cannot think, Neiman says, we remove people’s critical thinking abilities. She draws parallels between woke and the Enlightenment which she characterises as the beginning of self-awareness. “None of us are infallible, we make mistakes, we misinterpret things, but of course we must self reflect and try to have a sense of the person we are speaking with.”

One of the founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, says that the only way we get people to change is by walking with them, shaming them never works. It’s about how we make them feel; “sometimes part of our purist culture can be not having room for the waking among the woke. And because of that, we just kind of keep circulating among the woke. Forgetting that the whole point is not to be in cliques.”

She says we keep hoping that facts, figures and logic will change people’s minds, but that what’s real “is actually closer to Black feminist thinkers who have said things like ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’”

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

Meet the Artists

Huddie William Ledbetter (1888 – 1949), better known by the stage name Lead Belly, was an American folk and blues singer notable for his strong vocals, virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the folk standards he introduced, including his renditions of "In the Pines", "Goodnight, Irene", "Midnight Special", "Cotton Fields", and "Boll Weevil". 

Susan Neiman is an American philosopher and writer. She has written extensively on the Enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics. Her work shows that philosophy is a living force for contemporary thinking and action. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Civil Rights Movement, Neiman dropped out of high school to join American activists working for peace and justice. Later she studied philosophy at Harvard University. In the 80s she spent six years in Berlin, studying at the Free University and working as a freelance writer. She was professor of philosophy at Yale and Tel Aviv University. In 2000 she assumed her current position as director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany.

Alicia Garza is an American civil rights activist and writer known for co-founding the international Black Lives Matter movement. She has organised around the issues of health, student services and rights, rights for domestic workers, ending police brutality, anti-racism, and violence against transgender and gender non-conforming people of colour. Her editorial writing has been published by The Guardian, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and Truthout. She currently directs Special Projects at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and is the Principal at the Black Futures Lab. 

[Sources: Wikipedia and artists’ own websites]


‘Woke: The Journey of a Word - Episode 1,’ Seriously… with Matthew Syed, BBC Radio 4, 28 February 2023. 

‘Here’s where ‘woke’ comes from,’ by Bloomberg, 8 January 2023 in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. 

‘The Scottsboro Boys,’ The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, read online.

"Scottsboro Boys," Lead Belly, listen here.

‘Been to the Mountaintop,’ Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington DC 31 March 1968. Listen on youtube

‘The War on Wokeness: the year the right rallied around a made-up menace,’ by Michael Harriot, The Guardian, 21 December 2022. 

‘Woke, the word that splits the world,’ podcast by Origin Story, Dorian Lynskey and Ian Dunt, available on all podcast platforms. More here.

‘Left Is Not Woke with Susan Neiman,’ Uncomfortable Conversations with Josh Szeps, available on all Podcast platforms, 14 February 2023. More here.

Left is Not woke, Susan Neiman.

The Persuaders: Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age, Anand Giridharadas.

‘Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in History,’ by Ryan Grim, The Intercept, 22 June 2022. Read online.

Further reading

Scared to be ‘woke’? It’s time for progressives to take a stand in the culture wars,’ Nesrine Malik, The Guardian, 21 February 2022.

‘unthinkable thoughts: call out culture in the age of covid-19,’ adrienne maree brown, 17 July 2020. Read here.

Sep 23, 2022

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Archimedes: ”Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” Chinua Achebe: “But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”

Dec 15, 2023

Joy as Fuel

"I’m aware, you know, that I and the people I love may perish in the morning. I know that. But there’s light on our faces now." — James Baldwin

Oct 21, 2022

The Role of the Artist

“Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say virtues) will inevitably become entrenched, tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.” — Ben Shahn

May 13, 2021

When Words Do Matter

“Words should not seek to please, to hide the wounds in our bodies, or the shameful moments in our lives. They may hurt, give us pain, but they can also provoke us to question what we have accepted for thousands of years.” ― Nawal El Saadawi

Mar 10, 2023

Reclaiming Words

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.” — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Dec 2, 2022

The Artist as Critic

“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, … but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 140, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”— Katsushika Hokusai, also known as Gakyō Rōjin Manji (The Old Man Mad About Art)