From the desirable to the derogatory

Wokeness, like political correctness, can tear when it is stretched too tight

Published - June 22, 2024 09:25 pm IST - Bengaluru

Wokeness has led to an imprecision in the language.

Wokeness has led to an imprecision in the language. | Photo Credit:

I was once asked by an editor to remove some sentences from something I had written because these might offend wokers. Wokers are people who apparently spend their time sucking everything positive out of the word ‘woke’ and packing it with something offensive. 

Woke “refers to an awareness of abstract but powerful sociopolitical arrangements that disempower too many people,” according to the linguist and New York Times columnist John McWhorter. 

But few words have made the journey from the desirable to the derogatory with such speed in recent times. 

Wokeness was politically on the Left, an act of inclusivity, respect for other cultures and ethnic variations; a warning against assuming the majority is automatically right. It showed support for the marginalised and that cannot be a bad thing. 

But then those at the other end of the political spectrum began to ridicule it. In an article he wrote last year, the RSS leader Ram Madhav said, “Wokeism is an undefinable trait of being an anarchist all the time… Woke theory is that the minority opinion is of greater value than that of the majority.” Politics corrupts language, and vice versa. 

Humpty Dumpty had said this might happen: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” 

I suspect ‘woke’ struggles owing to the influence of another contemporary phenomenon, ‘cultural appropriation.’ Years ago, a friend of our son from college, a German, said she loved a saree. My wife presented her with one, but then the student became uncertain. Did we mind that she wore this Indian garment or would we be upset at the cultural appropriation? We wouldn’t be insulted, my wife assured her, only happy (now that we were forced to think about it). 

The novelist Lionel Shriver said at a literary festival, “Those who embrace a vast range of identities – ethnicities, nationalists, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privileged and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions as a form of theft.” 

It caused a furore. A Sudanese writer walked out of the speech, arguing (as she wrote later) that people should write “only within the confines of their experience and identity.” 

If that were the case, fiction would be dead and only autobiography would survive. It would mean detective novelists, thriller and science fiction writers would not be allowed to do their work. I don’t think, for example, Agatha Christie has actually killed anybody, with or without her favourite poison. 

Wokeness has led to an imprecision in the language, though. We no longer say ‘batsman’ in cricket, but ‘batter’, an actor can be of either gender (or any of its 37 variants). 

Wokeness, like political correctness, can tear when it is stretched too tight. Wokers who do this can be a pain in the neck (or any other part of the anatomy if you think ‘neck’ discriminates against the others). 

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