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Wokeness is a Problem

During his Dusshera speech last year, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, stated that Indian society was in danger posed by “Cultural Marxists” and “Woke” elements. Media outlets like The Wire and The Print noted that such remarks were more political than material; the position being that while a term like woke carries explosive significance in American political discourse, it has little relevance in the Indian context, save for a thin sliver of society.


The inflation and conflation of the word "woke" with a growing number of social and political causes, the proliferation of the term's use across the internet, has led to a distortion of what the word means today.

However, the term woke has been slung around Indian political discourse for a hot minute now. Way back in 2021, Swarjyamag published an article titled “So Why are India’s Young Going Woke.” Scroll.in republished an article that counterintuitively equated Hindutva as the “woke” culture of India. And going full The Protocols of the Elders of Zion-level-conspiracy-theory, there is even a book called Snakes in the Ganga, paranoid that Harvard University is the “Vishwa guru” of woke, and it’s out to corrupt Indian society.


All this illustrates that the term woke has an explosive significance in the Indian political context too. It also illustrates a fair bit of confusion as to the true, authentic and original essence of the term. The spate of attacks on woke culture across the internet and around the world goes to show that the term is fast becoming a discursive dynamite sui generis in the zeitgeist. Now, we have Elon Musk crusading against the “woke mind virus”.

What was once a practical call to action has now undergone iterations of semantic metamorphoses to become a dog whistle signifying a movement (or a political position) that is nauseatingly moralizing, obsessed with virtue signalling, hypersensitive and hysterical about identity politics, social justice, and political correctness. And indeed, perception is reality. But only superficially so.


To understand how woke went from being a potent reminder for vigilance to all forms of oppression to a political football being slung around anybody taking offence or showing sensitivity in the discourse, we have to examine its history. We have to consider how being removed from its original context, proliferating worldwide in usage through the internet, being used by corporations to sell their products, and being artfully rhetorically manipulated by the right-wing everywhere, the term today signifies something grotesquely mutated.

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The term woke has its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It has a specific sociopolitical context; the systemic marginalization and oppression of African Americans in the U.S. Amongst the earliest users of the term “woke”, or rather “wake”, though implying the same concept of Black political consciousness was the Jamaican political activist Marcus Gravy, when he wrote in 1923:

“Wake up Ethiopia! Wake up Africa!”.



The American folk singer-songwriter, Lead Belly, was one of the earliest to use the term “stay woke”. He did so in the spoken postscript in his song Scottsboro Boys, in reference to the trials of the nine African Americans falsely accused of raping two white women in the state of Alabama. The case is one of the most famous instances of kangaroo court, legal injustices in US history.


Woke then (slowly) became a term, specifically for Black America, to be enlightened and aware of all the dangers, threats and inequities of living in a racist White America. A century later you could hear the term in the songs of artists like Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, et al. Although, the writer William Melvin Kelley had written a New York Times magazine article way back in 1962, titled “If You’re Woke You Dig It”, describing the general appropriation of African American slang by the white Beatniks of the time.

But “woke” wasn’t necessarily high up on the tier list of cool Black slang others could use to spice up their lingo. At least not at the level it would reach half a century later.


The internet bombastically changed the fortunes of the term. It generalized the concept of political consciousness against systematic inequities the world over through social media. In doing so, it also heuristically and semantically changed what woke meant to different groups of people. Although, to this day its original essence lurks underneath.

Woke in the 2010s became part of the global lexicon, but it also subsumed concepts and terms that were perhaps tangentially related, in the sense that those terms came about to give people a language to fight systematic injustices and inequities. Feminists and LGBTQ+ communities especially found resonance. Questions of gender, sexuality, race, and identity became something that woke provided an aggregate position for.


Movements like Black Lives Matter and #metoo also helped the idea of wokeness spread.

Although, woke’s origin comes from the gritty racial and material reality of America (the U.S.), a constellation of more ivory-tower-academic concepts rooted in Marxist, postmodern, and postcolonial thinking found in the word, a clarion call that could be employed to galvanize people to stand up to the system. Because “being woke” ultimately is about being politically conscious about all ways the economic base, the superstructures, institutions, and systems keep you down, inhibiting your (and/or others) agency.


But its time in the Sun was short-lived. Perhaps like Icarus, it flew too close to it.

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The internet is the graveyard of nuance, and online political discourse is purgatory. As the term gained a wider currency, its potency also got diluted. Especially in the realm of identity politics and virtue signalling, the adoption of a “woke” stance often led to, or at least appeared to be leading to, a kind of stale and puritanical moralizing. The more the term got associated with critical discourse about the political status quo in Twitter threads, IG stories, and TikTok reels, the more its potency got diluted.



Furthermore, with the internet’s tendency to meme anything and everything, we got memes that joked and diminished the actual significance of the term. We had YouTube videos of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro “owning woke liberals” in debate; we had the triggered woke SJW meme. We had a deluge of out-of-context and overreaching internet content distorting and corrupting the original essence of the term woke. It increasingly came to signify an indiscriminate and irrational rejection of concepts like race and gender, rather than a critical deconstruction.


Woke culture” also rose alongside cancel culture in the 2010s, another term with its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE); another term co-opted and distorted by the world at large (a story for another day). Initially, there was synchronicity and also indisputability about both concepts working in tandem. Especially, at the high point of #metoo when Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby were getting “cancelled”, and also there was attention being drawn to the systemic inequities that enabled such predatory behaviour. But as time progressed, the infamous Kevin Hart situation, where he had to forgo hosting the 2019 Oscars because of outrage for some of his old Tweets where he used the word “faggot”, public reception towards both woke-ism and cancel culture decidedly reached a critical juncture, falling out of favour and being seen as hyper-sensitive and hyperreactive. Similarly, the outrage of JK Rowling's increasingly anti-trans rhetoric and work split the public, with many of her supporters viewing her attempted cancellation as a kind of woke fanaticism.


Simultaneously, capitalist corporations began woke-washing their advertisements and PR in an attempt to connect with younger demographics. Kendall Jenner was depicted as solving the issue of police brutality by offering a riot police officer a Pepsi; Nike presented itself as being pro-Black Lives Matter, supporting former American football player Colin Kaepernick’s boycott of the NFL while still operating exploitative sweatshops around the world. Disney and other major movie studios began introducing people of colour in their films that increasingly reeked of empty tokenism, at least to the larger public. Controversies around movies like Ocean’s 8 and Marvel’s Eternals to the present day stir about Disney’s Little Mermaid and Snow White reboots around all steeped in identity politics. The detraction towards such cultural production either stems from a place of unbridled bigotry, or a critical eye seeing through the superficiality of the endeavour.



A very stark example of the hollowness and lip service-like pandering to progressive values was the controversy over the jewellery brand Tanishq’s 2020 advertisement depicting a Hindu-Muslim interfaith marriage, which led to calls of boycott and allegations of “love jihad” by right-wing quarters. Tanishq was quick to remove the ad, illustrating the strength of their conviction.


The conflation of the original essence of the word woke, as denoting active vigilance and action against systemic inequities in society, to an increasingly bloated concept with nebulous associations of social media virtue signalling, memes and commercial opportunism led to what can linguistically be termed as semantic bleaching; losing its original denotative meaning and coming to signify a whole host of loosely related connotations.


Today, unfortunately, it functions more as a dog whistle, especially for those on the right to refer to an irrational, hysterical and surreptitious ideological movement that is a threat to culture and tradition. Whether it’s political discourse in India or the West, now woke is almost always used as a pejorative. Meanwhile, the genuine and authentic sympathizers of more progressive causes surrounding issues of identity politics and representation (surrounding race, gender, sexuality and even caste and class) have had to move on from using a term that has been distorted and mutated.

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