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Stay awake to the right’s weaponisation of woke

The Weeknd rehearsing for the Super Bowl halftime show - Credit: Getty Images for TW

For the right, the appropriation of the term ‘woke’ is a means to police society. We should go back to its true, original meaning, says BONNIE GREER.

The Superbowl halftime show features the kind of commercial breaks that advertisers dream of. Here the latest products are displayed, usually fronted by mega stars. Messages can be conveyed there, too.

Whether these are about a new direction a company is taking or how it sees the times, halftime is always a kind of foretaste of things to come.

And also, it can be seen as signifying what is really happening now but is not quite up to the window of mass human consciousness.

The halftime show is always massive entertainment, always fronted by a mega star or a soon-to-be one. This space provides the artist the possibility of being seen by literally millions. It is so powerful a moment, so career-creating that the artist may want to invest their own money in it.

This is what the Canadian pop star, The Weeknd did. Invested a few million. It paid off.

One of the segments of his show went viral and launched thousands of memes.

It features him going through a golden, mirrored maze, surrounded by men in masks, illustrating his hit, I Can’t Feel My Face.

The brief segment is raucous, chaotic, unsure. The Weeknd is trying to go forward but not aware of where that is; he realises that the old way out is not only not the answer: but that the old exit is lost, too. Gone. It is easy to understand why people responded so viscerally to this whole thing.

For many, this is the illustration of the times we live in, maybe the way that we feel inside. There are no certainties, no real answers anymore. Tumbling through a world that seems indecipherable, we wait for the next undefined moment.

Whether that be the revelation of more and more footage of the Capitol building of the United States of America being sacked by white supremacists in the name of the then president; or another week locked in with restless kids ready to explode, these are times that most of us cannot fathom. Cannot understand.

So imagine how refreshing it was to stumble across, on YouTube, a conversation between the broadcaster Andrew Neil and Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a former Labour politician whose views now on some social justice issues have become more socially conservative.

Their chat had the air and the charm of two old friends after a Sunday lunch. It is filled with warmth and camaraderie, a kind of balm in these turbulent times.

To see them together made me want to linger, to take in what they had to say. So I did.

Part of what they were talking about was the times that we are in, as you would expect.

Their conversation made me think about the terms ‘woke’ and ‘politically correct’. Not that these two gentleman said these words, nor would describe themselves as such, nor aspire to be. Quite the contrary. It was a fascinating conversation.

But what, for me, was most fascinating was the implication, in their discussion, that Malcolm X, for example, might be like them if he had lived; that he too would have been a debunker of what they see as the forces powering BLM, for example.

Those forces are often described as ‘woke’, a term that has become a kind of anti-mantra among those on the right.

As someone said to me: “Why would anyone not want to be awake?” Indeed. But for those on the right spectrum, wokeness implies the opposite: a kind of unthinking, automatic, sleepwalking into a left wing way of being. But that’s not where the term started. This is the same with woke’s sibling, ‘political correctness’.

I have always been amused by the right’s appropriation of the term ‘politically correct’. As I recall, it was a term of satire back in the day, something we university students from the late 1970s and early 1980s used to mock… ourselves. That was it. You can tell by the way that the term is constructed. In other words: it’s a joke.

But it was appropriated by American conservatives at the end of the last century, in a process catalysed by the debate around a 1987 book The Closing Of The American Mind, by the philosopher Allan Bloom. The book criticised the way that so-called relativism, in US academia and society in general, was harming the country and its culture and undermining critical thinking. I have never read the entire book, just excerpts. Yet I am judging it… Which I suppose is the very thesis that Bloom set out to prove: ‘it’s from a conservative point of view so it must be bad…’

But perhaps my judging it may come from the fact that Bloom believed that the mind of American students at the time of his writing, had been rendered practically inoperative by, for example, Mick Jagger. He believed that putting the Rolling Stones alongside Bach was absurd and the fact that some teachers were doing just that created an emergency of epic proportions.

Somehow, and quickly, he believed, universities had to get back to not only listening to “good music”, but to reading the “Western canon”. To argue, or even worse, teach that, for instance, the young African American poet Amanda Gorman, who performed at Joe Biden’s inauguration, might have the potential to some day rank alongside the magisterial Emily Dickinson, must be dismissed as mere political correctness. Or, in the vernacular of the 2020s, as woke.

But woke is, of course, African American jargon which goes back further than recent years. Further than political correctness. And its meaning is quite beautiful.

It means being awake to not only the possibilities of escape from inhuman conditions, but of being awoke to the Divine. To transcendence. It is also about being awake to nature, to the sky and the trees and the air.

Those of the enslaved who could, escaped using a series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. One of the ways to chart the route north and therefore to freedom, was to keep the constellation Polaris in your eye and in your mind. Escaped slaves, travelling along the route, had to move at night. To get out of the South and to freedom they were told to stay awake – to be woke – and to “follow the Drinking Gourd”.

This is another term for the Big Dipper, that large asterism which consists of seven stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Four define a bowl, three define a handle: the drinking gourd. Within it is Polaris, the North Star, the pointer to freedom.

I can remember being told by elders to “stay woke”, i.e. watch how I proceeded through the world, how I treated people; how I was treated. I had to always remember who I was; where I came from and what that all meant in the scheme of things.

Now woke is a term of abuse, flung around by those on the right.

In that online discussion between Andrew Neil and Trevor Phillips, when Malcolm X’s name came up briefly, it was implied that he might be on their side, in social justice matters.

The very idea that Brother Malcolm, who regularly went on a late night chat show in my hometown of Chicago, armed with charts and books to refute conservatives, would have ended up sympathising with them is not to know what he was about then. What he became. And why he was killed. He was killed because he had moved forward. I guess you could call him a progressive.

The modern use of ‘woke’, and ‘political correctness’ by the right is a way to delegitimise and hold back the inevitable tide of history towards a more multi-ethnic world with new definitions, new history.

Rather than admit that our era is more like The Weeknd depicted in his halftime show – a confusing and bewildering maze that we must be awake to – many on the right and the socially conservative and reactive, want us to follow what they have ordained as inevitable. Inescapable.

The good news is that our species is imminently adaptable. We change. We move forward. Nature has no equivalent of ‘back in the good old days’.

What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing

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