So let’s talk about That Word.
Meaning the word the political left was using to define itself until the political right got hold of it and made it an object of ridicule. The word that quickly became unusable, even faintly embarrassing.
No, the word is not “woke.”
It is, rather, “liberal,” a word that, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues in his 2006 book, Talking Right, was “already associated with profligacy, spinelessness, malevolence, masochism, elitism, fantasy, anarchy, idealism, softness, irresponsibility and sanctimoniousness” by the late 1970s as a result of white backlash to Black progress, the national schism over Vietnam and the perceived failures of the Great Society.
Then Ronald Reagan piled on. In 1988, he — soon to be followed by George H.W. Bush — dubbed it “the L-Word,” i.e., unsayable in polite company. Together, they conducted a master class in how, through relentless ridicule, a self-definition could be weaponized against those who chose it. Democratic leaders soon began refusing the label outright or accepting it only with prickly reluctance. The left was forced into a defensive crouch from which it has never quite emerged.
Understanding how That Word was taken out of service is invaluable in understanding what is transpiring now with That Other Word. And here, yes, we are talking about “woke.”
Because we’ve seen this movie before. Once again, the right mocks a word with undisguised glee — it is slapped on a Florida education censorship bill; it is blamed by the L.A. County sheriff for making the city unlivable; Rep. Matt Gaetz claims it will “destroy” the military. And once again, the left responds with a crouch. Or has no one else noticed how the word has magically disappeared from the mouths of all but its detractors? A list that, not incidentally, includes Democratic strategist James Carville, who made news last year by declaring, in a Vox interview, that “Wokeness is a problem.”
But is it, really? Or is the problem not that the left keeps allowing the right to frame the debate? Is the problem not the failure to finally realize that there is no word the left can use to define itself that will stop those mean conservatives from picking on them? Because it’s not the words the right opposes. Rather, it’s the beliefs those words express.
Like the belief that people should not have to breathe carcinogens in their air, drink poisons in their water or eat maggots in their meat. And that the work week should not be 80 hours long. And that children should not be in factories, nor hard-working families in slums. And that women should control their reproductive destinies, LGBTQ people should be treated like human beings, Black people should be free to vote. And that government has a responsibility to enforce it all.
Those are noble causes to fight for. That those who have historically done so find it necessary to crouch in defense speaks to how upside down and inside out is this era — and to the success of the right in defining those who are too often timid and inept in defining themselves.
“Woke” means awake and aware. “Liberal” means “generous and broad-minded.” “Progressive” — just to complete the triumvirate — means “characterized by progress.” Each is preferable to its alternative.
That’s not to advocate for any particular word. Rather, it’s to say that every moment spent debating words is a moment spent not advocating for the beliefs those words express.
It’s hard to fight from a crouch.