The word “woke” used to have a positive connotation. It originated in Black culture and took on a more common, mainstream usage following the killing of Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. To be woke meant to be socially progressive, with an acute awareness of social injustices.
Then, in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, the word woke was co-opted, hijacked by the political right and turned into a broad-sweep putdown of anyone with politically correct liberal values. Woke was newly reserved for lefty intellectuals and tree huggers, sushi eaters and faculty lounge highbrows, New York Times readers and the like.
It’s a strong weapon for the right, all the more so because progressives have ceded ownership of the term. You don’t hear “I’m woke and proud of it” much. They don’t have a retaliatory catch-all smear for reactionaries or their backwardness. Hillary Clinton tried “deplorables.” We know how well that went.
Re-engineering political language to discredit progressives hasn’t just been limited to woke. The language pirates put liberals on the defensive by weaponizing the term “elites” as well, which used to signify success, having reached a high level. Now it’s shorthand for ruling class condescension and snobbery.
It also used to be that the wealthy elites were primarily conservative. But the right smartly politicized the term, slotting elites on the left side of the spectrum – part and parcel of the woke crowd.
In the U.S. and Canada, the manipulation of vocabulary has aided in marketing the right as the domain of populists. Heaven help you in politics if you happen to be an “intellectual” – that term was debased long ago and still is. While it may equate with being erudite, in these more philistine times that simply won’t do.
The mainstream media has felt the effects of language manipulators as well. During his administration, Donald Trump greatly popularized the term “fake news.” Everyone knows that Mr. Trump, not to mention his friends at Fox, put out far more fake news than anyone else. But they still managed to convince a whole host of voters that the establishment “liberal media” are big purveyors of falsehoods.
This week, with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the right has more to celebrate in terms of its power over the public discourse. With the company going private, it appears that deregulation is in the works. There will be no more banning the Donald Trumps of the world. It’s a victory for the politically incorrect.
Over time, the language pirates in the U.S. have even turned the word liberal into a derogatory term. That hasn’t happened in Canada, but conservatives here have been no slouches in picking up on some of the trends.
Pierre Poilievre’s leadership campaign strongly appeals to anti-woke sentiment. “Stand up to woke culture,” he tweets. “Stand up for freedom.” It’s not the hard right that divides Canada, insists the demagogic MP who was one of the foremost defenders of the truckers’ occupation of the country’s capital. It’s the woke mob. “We know what this woke culture is about,” he recently told supporters at a rally. “What it’s about is dividing people. Dividing them by race, gender, vaccination status.”
Mr. Poilievre is joined by Mr. Trump in impugning Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being in the grip of woke culture. “The radical left is trying to replace American democracy with woke tyranny,” the former president said in February. Referencing Ottawa’s handling of the truckers’ protest, Mr. Trump – ludicrously posturing as the foremost defender of democracy – said the Democrats “want to do the same thing that Trudeau has been doing to Canada.”
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, who like Mr. Poilievre is seen to have a promising candidacy as a national conservative leader, recently backed a bill called the Stop WOKE Act that puts limits on what can be taught in schools about racism and the history of slavery.
Liberals in Canada and Democrats south of the border have moved their agendas leftward, making them easier anti-woke targets. Long-time Democrat strategist James Carville has noted how the topic of defunding the police has played right into Republican hands. It’s lunacy, he said. “Some of these people need to go to a woke detox centre or something.”
Though there are cases, such as the one he mentions, of the progressives going overboard, woke Democrats in the U.S. and woke Liberals in Canada did win their most recent national elections.
But orchestrating terminology provides a big advantage for conservatives. It helps them masquerade as the real tribunes of the people. The unwoke for the great unwashed.
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