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"Woke" Shortlisted for Word of the Year ~ Plains Folk Essay ~ Feeding Birds

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It’s the time of year everyone has a “Best Of” list. Even dictionaries get in on the trend. “Woke” made’s short list for word of year, following a 2300% increase in searches. We revisit a conversation from earlier this year with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein on the long history of this suddenly popular word.

Jack, this word woke has been used in politically and socially conscious black circles for about 100 years, came into more popular terminology around 2014, and then recently really exploded with what we call woke culture and some who are agreeing with the principles saying this is about social justice. Those who disagree say this is political correctness gone awry.

When did we first start to hear the term woke?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, that depends who we is, right? Because as you point out, this has been part of Bblack nomenclature for 100 years and has been used in a variety of contexts from political to being aware that your partner is cheating on you. But in terms of the larger discussion, I think it's really useful that you drew the comparison to political correctness because it actually works the same way.

In the 1980s, the phrase politically correct was a tongue-in-cheek phrase that liberals, leftists, activist organizations used to sort of talk about people who they thought was moral but also laugh at themselves at the same time, right? That you were politically correct if you understood the importance of social justice, if you used certain language, if you were one of the crowd, so to speak. And so the phrase politically correct was the way that people had a moral commitment but teased themselves in the same way.

And then it got pulled into the larger discussion and became a term to attack those very same people, that you were too politically correct if you were language police, you were too politically correct if you had a particular point of view that was opposed to, let's say, conservative values. And this works the same way. On the one hand, wokeness has been something that has been used amongst Black people for a very, very long time.

But as we entered the modern world, it was also something that people used to put a fun, hip spin on the idea that you are aware of racism, but you're also aware of the way that racism infects the society, that it is systematic as the term goes. So it really became popular during the Black Lives Matter movement, when a woke person was someone who understood that the police were worse to African-Americans than they were to white people, and that this brutality was not just about the individual police officer, but about the way police were trained. And then, of course, it was taken and used as an attack against the same people who relied on it in the first place.

Ashley Thornberg

We saw the opposite of this happen with the word queer. It was used against people with a queer identity and then co-opted and said, you know, to oversimplify, we're here, we're queer, get used to it. Language has always been both a tool and a weapon.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Absolutely. And I actually think the best example of this is the 1960s, ‘70s phrase, Black is beautiful. Because if you read, let's say, what Malcolm X is reported as saying in the autobiography of Malcolm X, he describes how the word black signifies darkness and evil and dirtiness.

White is pure. Light is knowledge. And there was the sense that dark skin was ugly.

And even amongst the black community, there was, and in many places in South Asia and East Asia, light skin is considered more attractive by some people than dark skin. And so when you say Black is beautiful, what you're saying is, let's take this thing that's negative and let's put it front and center and say, it's positive, it's gorgeous, it should be celebrated. We've seen that with, as you pointed out, queer and gay.

The N-word, which is going to come up in a minute, has been taken back in a certain sense because people are allowed to, African-Americans are allowed to use it as a sign of kinship, as well as other things when white people aren't. And so this attempt to use language to frame the negativity and the positivity of any idea is really important. And that's key to the shifting of the attitudes about this term.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican philosopher and social activist. He is the person that most people who have studied the history of this word kind of point to as the first person to use it. And this is back in 1923 in a publication that he wrote that includes the line, wake up Ethiopia, wake up Africa, and talks about being woke, being aware of social injustice as it relates to black bodies.

You and I have both already talked about how it has been a catch-all term, even talking about, you know, is your significant other cheating on you? And now being used in things like the conversation around policies on drag shows. Can you help us to sort of understand this through line of how it has changed?

And does making the term applicable to everything make it mean nothing?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Okay. So let's take two different steps back. The first is when you think about what the word woke means, you should think about something like the matrix, right?

This idea that you are going through life without thinking, without having your eyes open, without reflecting on stuff, but there's a reality that you're not aware of. And so you wake up the way that Keanu Reeves woke up in the matrix, and all of a sudden you see reality for what it is. That's what the idea behind wokeness is for Marcus Garvey.

That's what the idea was for a long time in that sense that you're sleeping through injustice, you're being passive, you're letting it happen to you. And if you just wake up, you will see what's reality and you will be able to fight for it. But there's a missing piece.

And to understand the missing piece, we have to go back to what gets called the Southern Solution, which was the Republican strategy post-civil rights. This was largely created by a guy named Lee Atwater, who was a Republican advisor to Nixon, to Reagan. And the idea was to use the anti-civil rights, anti-Black attitudes of the South to consolidate Republican power.

Now, this is not ideological. I'm not being partisan here. There's tons and tons of documentation about this.

The Wikipedia entry is actually really good on it. And the idea was to take this racism and to consolidate the base. But it isn't that simple.

And so Lee Atwater has a very famous quote that I'm going to read from 1980 describing it. And I'm going to use the phrase, the N-word. I should probably use the real word because it gives the impact, but I'm not going to do that because our culture has decided that that's probably not appropriate.

But here's Lee Atwater talking about the Southern Solution in retrospect. He says, quote, you start out in 1954 by saying N-word, N-word, N-word. By 1968, you can't say N-word.

That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. And you're getting so abstract.

Now you're talking about cutting taxes. And all these things you're talking about are totally economic things. And a byproduct of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.

We want to cut this is much more abstract than even the busing thing. So and a hell of a lot more abstract than N-word, N-word. OK, so what's he saying?

He's saying we can't just call someone an N-word. We can't say, hey, racists, let's hurt the Black people. That's not going to work, in part because lots of racists don't want to think of themselves as racist and in part because it's ugly and it's easy to attack.

So instead, you start using other terms like busing or other terms like cutting taxes that hurt Black people more than white. Now, why do I bring this up? Because wokeness is the same thing.

It is unseemly and most major Republicans will not say we want to hurt this group more than that group. We want to hurt Blacks more than whites. We want to hurt gay people more than straight.

We want to hurt drag queens more than other performers. They can't say that and they don't want to say that because that takes them out of the mainstream and puts them on the fringe. So they use the term woke to say exactly the same thing so that people can get angry about it without exposing themselves to the more obvious claims of homophobia, sexism, racism and other such things.

Ashley Thornberg

Sorry, you're saying you would consider something like protecting the children be coded language?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Now, obviously, we all want to protect our children, but the Republican Party has long been in the position that it's the family's job to protect the children and not the schools, that the schools should be neutral, that the schools should let the parents make their own decisions. But now, all of a sudden, these same parents are taking their own opinions and forcing it on the schools. That's an inconsistency.

They want the schools to have strict regulations. They want the school board to get bigger in a certain sense. They want the school administration to get bigger.

And whenever there's an inconsistency in a political policy, you have to ask yourself what's going on. Now, the key to all of these things is that you have to pick a phrase or an idea that is innocuous enough that anyone could put their own meaning on it. Right.

Protecting the children. I know what protecting the children means to me. You know what protecting the children means to you.

And we can both agree on protecting the children, even if we have completely opposite ideas of what we do to protect our children. And that's where the conflict comes in.

Ashley Thornberg

We're talking today with a philosopher, Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein. Jack, I'm curious, though, a lot of drag shows do have some elements of overt sexuality in them. Do you see validity in the argument of not having them where there are kids present?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, the first I would ask is how many of the people who have who are arguing against this have actually been to a drag show? Because what most drag shows are, what 95 percent of drag shows are, are lip sync competitions. Right.

If you if you watch the RuPaul's Drag Race, there's all the behind the scenes stuff and the drama because it's a soap opera acting over sexualized to be noticed, to be the star of the show. But if you watch the shows that are put on stage, that the audience actually sees, those are dance numbers. Right.

Those are lip syncing competitions. And all the drag shows I've been at have been basically the same thing. Now, depending on the audience, depending on the song, depending on the context, there's going to be a lot of sexual.

There might be some sexual contact, but it's not more sexual content than the song W.A.P. or the stuff we see on primetime. The amount of sexual content that we are in that we are inundated with all the time is so much more graphic and so much more, I don't know, eroticized. I can't think of the right word then drag shows.

I mean, I don't know how many of your listeners will remember this, but but about 15 years ago, 20 years ago, it's been a long time when Britney Spears was a big star and she did that famous Pepsi commercial. She was dancing around in very little clothes, dressed up as a schoolgirl, showing her midriff, you know, dancing erotically. And it cut to Bob Dole, a major Republican leader who was 80 years old at that point.

And she's what, 18? And he is holding a pencil in his hand because one of his hands don't work that that pardon me is erect. And he goes in the camera and he says, wow.

Right. So this is an 80 year old man with a symbol of erectus who is the leader of the Republican Party, who was the the Republican candidate for president shortly after. And he is lusting after an 18 year old sex object.

Now, drag shows are not that bad. Drag shows do not act in that way that we would now or many people would now deem as inappropriate. So let's forget about the conversation as to whether or not sex is something to be ashamed of or sex should be hidden or anything.

Let's put that aside and just say the drag shows that are out there are so much milder than primetime television and commercials that this has to be about something else. It's not about sexual content. It's about something else.

Ashley Thornberg

There is an interesting overlapping conversation between people who are calling and who don't want drag shows at all from a sort of a conservative value standpoint and drag performers themselves as being sort of tired of this idea that the punchline is femininity itself. I wonder if you could comment on sort of the strange bedfellows coming together there. And highly, highly reduced to over-sexualized parts.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Over-sexualized, but also very traditional in sense. I actually had a person on Y radio who this was long before the trans discussion became a major issue was before Caitlyn Jenner. It was before any of that.

And this scholar, incredibly good scholar, was, I don't even know what the term was, but I guess we would call transgender at this point. And she kept referring to herself as auntie. She said, oh, listen to your auntie.

Get your economic advice from your auntie. And there are definitely people who would object to that picture of womanhood of this matronly. It's you're either the Madonna or the whore.

You're either the mother, the 1950s dress wearing homemaker or you're the sex pod at the Britney Spears or whomever. And that's a legitimate complaint, but that's not the complaint that's in politics. That's a complaint for people who are trying to figure out what masculinity and femininity is.

And the more nuanced our conception of sexual identity is, and the more nuanced we have these performance roles, the more nuance these performers can be. The problem is we have such a radical division between what we think of as a man and what we think about as a woman. You and I have talked about this on the show in the past.

Men don't cry. Men stand up and don't change course. Men are providers.

Men have to be autonomous. The hero walks away into the sunset without falling for the woman. The woman is emotional.

The woman is caring. The woman has to care for the kids first. The woman has to be subservient.

The woman has to be all these things. Neither of those things are true, and neither of those things are the whole picture. And so if you live in a society where masculine and feminine are radically, extremely divided, then the people who play both parts are going to be extreme in the same sense.

So absolutely, there is a very important discussion to be had about the picture of femininity that is portrayed in drag shows and the picture of femininity that is adopted by some trans folks. But that's a different conversation than these people are groomers, these people are sexual predators, these people are harmful to our children, and therefore we can't let them read stories in a library on a Sunday morning because if they read Curious George, it's going to destroy the kid forever and they're going to be a sexual victim. And that's just nonsense.

Ashley Thornberg

Is this censorship?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Yes, of course this is censorship. And it's censorship of art. That's the other thing that we have to recognize.

People are talking about this politically. People are talking about this as if drag show is a form of protest. Now, if it is, then it's even harder to justify the censorship because of the First Amendment rights and the protection of protest.

But also, the thing that I said just a moment ago between femininity and masculinity, part of art's job is to sort that out. Part of art's job is to experiment with these things. And censorship that interferes with the artistic exploration is a barrier to human progress.

We have watched on television over the last 30, 40 years as sitcoms, as movies, even again as commercials have put out as experiments different images of the family, different images of kids, different images of... What the community should be and some of those stick and some of those don't. So when you censor art, you are censoring that experimentation.

And it is censorship based on false premise that just the expression of these ideas, just someone in a dress or performing a dance move is going to destroy your children when in fact we know that there are other areas where kids are in much greater danger. And there is a huge list of groups that are much more likely to be predators or hurt kids than drag queens, than people at a drag show, especially when the drag shows are supervised. There's no kid in the back room alone with someone who put on a dress so they could attack the kids.

There's an audience. The parents are with them. And you have to ask yourself, why would you want to censor this in the first place?

And if the answer is the kids are in danger, then the question is the kids are in danger of what and what evidence do you have for that?

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, this idea of who gets to decide what kids need to be protected from reminds me of the idea that really started this conversation to begin with is the word woke and is overusing it, making it not an effective word anymore. And going back to this idea that it started in black political and social conscious circles, who has ownership, if that is a thing, of the word woke? Is it okay to use it outside of those circles?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Language evolves. And even if someone had control in the beginning, it doesn't necessarily mean they get all the control in the end. However, given the history of making black people invisible, of making black bodies objects and animalistic instead of fully human, taking away that origin of wokeness, taking away the very particular notion of wokeness being an awareness of the black experience, the experience in the world, that's taking away something really important.

And frankly, the left has never been good at protecting their words. That's why they call themselves progressive instead of liberals, because the word liberal has become a bad term and they don't have the strength to take it over again. It happened with political correctness, and I think it's happening before our eyes with wokeness.

The idea of wokeness is a very, very important insight that we should honor and protect. And to make it about everything is to make it about nothing. And that's the very point of the attack against it.

Ashley Thornberg

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota, joins us once a month for Philosophical Currents, a philosophical look at a current news topic. Jack, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

My pleasure, as always.

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