[Part of a series, this essay is adapted from Chapter Nine of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow — Now available. An earlier version of this piece, which was a precursor to Chapter Nine, appeared in April 2021.]
In its healthiest manifestation nowadays, being and/or staying ‘woke’ refers to becoming aware of social justice issues that need to be addressed, and ideally, taking action that addresses them. More generally, being woke involves being increasingly able to see ‘what is’ beyond the limitations of one’s personal, familial, and cultural biases. No one that I’ve met, read, listened to, heard of, or been does this 100% successfully. In its least healthy manifestation, being woke refers to an attitude of superiority — being more woke, seeing more than some other individual or group: I’m (or we’re) better than you are. So there. Currently, most folks accused of being or claiming to be woke are characterized as being more liberal; most of their opponents and accusers are characterized as being more conservative. These characterizations tend to do more harm than good despite any partial truths they may contain.
A casual review of history demonstrates 1) that the general concept of being or staying woke has been around since at least the mid-1800s in the United States — as in the “Wide Awakes” abolitionist supporters of Abraham Lincoln (and elsewhere at least since Siddhartha Gautama famously woke c. 500 BCE); 2) the specific use of the word woke (as opposed to “awoke”) has been around since at least the 1930s — as in Lead Belly’s commentary at the end of his song, “Scottsboro Boys”; 3) many folks whose behavior embodies wokeness don’t talk about it or posture as being superior; they simply live as exemplars for the rest of us — the late Congressman John Lewis comes to mind, among others; and 4) as above, some folks who talk about their alleged wokeness wield it as a weapon to point to the shortcomings of others. They (we) can be found everywhere — in media, government, and in our neighborhoods; at our kitchen tables and even peering back from our bathroom mirrors.
The allegedly woke folks (not the embodied woke folks) who wield their wokeness as a weapon of superiority, whom we’ll call unskillful, publicly judge and attempt to ostracize or ‘cancel’ the allegedly inferior sleepyheads — pointing out their inferiority, silencing them, and symbolically or literally canceling their membership in whatever they had previously belonged to. Critics of the woke cancelers work at canceling them, essentially practicing what they’re allegedly opposed to. If a government agent or agency does this, it’s a First Amendment issue; if anyone else does it, it’s inherently contradictory: if I’m truly woke, I don’t need to judge, shame, silence or cancel you. In fact, I’ll probably model my wokeness by engaging you in a conversation that does more good than harm, beyond the talking points, so we can both be woke. Buddha and John Lewis, among others, engaged in such modeling and conversation. The late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia regularly engaged each other in this way — amid their significantly different Constitutional perspectives.
The Problem with Wielding Wokeness as a Weapon
The words and behaviors of these unskillful woke folks imply a binary “woke/not woke” universe. One problem with this implication is that they never mention (perhaps because they haven’t woke to them yet) numerous other “awakenings” that are available to us, and that have been researched, identified and studied longitudinally for decades.
The current woke folks’ particular wokeness seems to refer to some of the perspectives that may accompany awakening from a modern to a postmodern worldview, such as a commitment to equal rights for all in practice — which would be the not-yet-realized promise of the U.S. Constitution, its Amendments, and other legislation, which emerged in an awakening from a traditional to a modern worldview. Said differently, the framers’ documents outlined a move from “traditional” monarchy to a “modern” democratic republic. It was written by, for and about landowning white men (emphasis on landowning, white, and men).
Modernity woke us up to the possibility of democracy, which is more inclusive, balanced and complex than traditional monarchy (Having to do what the king or queen says is waaaay more exclusive, imbalanced, and simple than electing some people to represent us (and letting them tell us what to do)). Postmodernity, among other things, woke some of us up to notice those pesky landowning (or otherwise wealthy/ powerful), white and men traits, and asked where the freedom and equality were for everyone else. Again, modernity gave us the Constitution; postmodernity continues to demand that it apply equally to everyone, and that it be amended as necessary to reflect the realities of the times in which we live. Why would anyone want to cancel this particular wokeness?
There are available awakenings beyond postmodernity, so those of us who would wield our postmodern wokeness today as a criticism of others are not at the cutting edge of anything (in fairness, whatever awakening is next for any one of us is our personal cutting edge).¹ When we’re unskillful, we know what we know, we’re oblivious to what we don’t know, and we consider those who are “other” as less than or wrong — just as any fundamentalist or unhealthily reformed _____ (fill in as you see fit) does. How I hold my wokeness, not its content, is the issue. If I believe in and behave every day in ways that work toward equality and freedom for all, it makes no sense to treat as unequal, or limit the freedom of, those who do not yet so believe or behave. A bit contradictory, yes?
We’ve Been Assuming Wokeness and Canceling Others for Centuries
The Europeans who kidnapped, transported and enslaved Africans, and eventually the Americans who fought for the right to continue that enslavement, encountered cultures they did not understand, believed they were superior to (more woke than), and literally worked, and in some cases still work, to cancel these cultures through both legal and extralegal means such as slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, unequal protections, mass incarceration, and voter suppression. Initially they did this in the name of the economic advantages of unpaid forced labor and later (and still) in a bewildering embrace of white supremacy and white nationalism.²
The Europeans who bumped into the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and on the continents now known as the Americas, and the Americans some of these Europeans chose to become — making that 18th-century monarchy-to-democracy move — believed they were more woke than these peoples whose land they coveted. They worked, and in some cases still work, to cancel these cultures through a history of trespass, theft, betrayal and slaughter (in the name of helping them be more like us). To take one example, “Indian” killer and remover, slaveholder, president, and allegedly fading face of the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson, stands out as an exceptional ‘woke canceler’, who as president remarked that he had “done his duty to his red children,” and that he would “now leave the poor deluded creeks & cherokees to their fate, and their annihilation.”³
From about 1954 through 1974 four U.S. presidents tried to cancel Vietnam’s sleepy insistence on self-determination. Using espionage, human life, bullets, and bombs, and despite the earlier experiences of the Chinese, Japanese and French, the U.S. attempted to impose bipartisan woke democracy on the Vietnamese (in the name of helping them be more like us). In 2003 we began again in Iraq. More recently almost every Republican in the U.S. Congress, led by the 45th President, attempted to cancel the 2020 election results, resulting in an attack on the U.S. Capitol. More examples exist; these will suffice.
While political, media, and personal clamoring about woke and cancel culture is currently popular, it is not new, although its motivations, tools, language, and tactics shift with the times. Nat Hentoff’s 1992 volume, Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other, clearly captured our dysfunctional attempts to mutually censor and cancel each other. Today, elected officials, performance news commentators, family, and friends don’t know how, or choose not, to disagree (or even agree) in respectful, civil conversation. We point our fingers and wring our hands. We terrorize American citizens of Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other Asian ancestries because we blame the Chinese for a pandemic; we are disengaged or not engaged, anxious, and depressed at work (and were before the pandemic).⁴ And yes, that’s a selective and limited catalog of issues. We have so much that we need to awaken to and that really does need to be canceled, so to speak, and yet we play on social media trying to cancel voices we don’t like or understand or both. Freedom, equality, and justice for some, indeed.
Wherever and however each of us is, another awakening awaits. It doesn’t require (or desire) that we cancel anyone, not even the paradoxically grave and goofy current version of our one precious self, who is longing for an increasingly inclusive, balanced, loving, and complex way of being in the world.
¹A brief sampling of books related to some of what’s available before and after postmodernity:
Fowler, James. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993 (1982).
Kegan, Robert. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009 (pp 11–30).
Plotkin, Bill. Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. Novato CA: New World Library, 2008.
Wilber, Ken. The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions. Boulder: Shambhala, 2017 (especially pp. 180–250 / charts pp.190–95).
²“bewildering embrace of white supremacy…” Some would argue that “states’ rights” and not white supremacy were and are the real issue. The states that historically make that argument all fought to keep slavery, and then to terrorize freed African-American slaves. Implicitly inherent in each, and often explicitly expressed, is a belief in white supremacy and/or nationalism.
³“‘done his duty to his red children’” In Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic, p. 97. Saunt cites The Papers of Andrew Jackson Digital Edition, ed. Daniel Feller (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press: 2015). I generally don’t endorse the imposition of current values and perspectives on people of the past, who often did not yet have access to what the present allows us to understand. In this case not everyone thought killing Native Americans was honorable, and there were plenty, albeit not enough, abolitionists during Jackson’s “Indian”-killing and slaveholding days.
⁴“we are disengaged or not engaged…at work”: https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx (e.g. “34% of U.S. workers are engaged, tying highest in Gallup’s history”)
Among many sources on suicide, depression and anxiety:
Hentoff, Nat. Free Speech for Me but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Saunt, Claudio. Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.