Why ‘woke’ became toxic

The term ‘woke’ has become so divisive that it is harming support for the issues it is meant to be highlighting.

Emma Thompson joins the Extinction Rebellion protest on April 19, 2019, in London, England. The actress was heavily criticised for flying from the US to London to attend a protest about climate change [File: Leon Neal/Getty Images]

In the West, the term “woke” has become a lightning rod on both the left and the right – a symbol of a modern culture war.

But its origins are far from modern. It first emerged in the US in the 1940s from the word “awake” and was used to describe someone who is well-informed on issues of social injustice – particularly racism. In its original use, it meant being alert to the specific discrimination and systemic harm suffered by African Americans. Thus, being “woke” implies one has “awakened” from a slumber, rather like the protagonist, Neo, after being unplugged from the Matrix in the movie of the same name. More recently, it has been adopted as a ubiquitous watchword for a wide variety of social movements, including LGBTQ issues, feminism, immigration, climate change and marginalised communities.

But this broad use of the term has caused it to become heavily weaponised by both the left and the right, turning what was once a welcoming creed into a toxic and divisive word, particularly in Western countries including the US, Canada, the UK and other European nations. This toxicity is in large part due to activists failing to develop the necessary coalitions to instil the change campaigners are advocating for.

This is a shame because the messages of inclusivity and diversity underpinning “wokeness” should not be so easily dismissed.

So why has the term “woke” become so divisive? The trouble starts when campaigns over-reach, alienating moderate supporters. It is easy to see how this has happened. Examples include toppling statues of wartime leader Winston Churchill – cherished as a hero by many in the West – or companies being “advised” to stop using the word “mother” by LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, which operates a “Workplace Equality Index” in the UK. To large swaths of the general public, this all screams of political correctness gone mad.

Wokeness also implies that those not in the club are asleep, deluded or wrong. This instant judgement forms a dividing line, forcing the other side to become defensive and further entrenching the debate. The moral superiority platform is hardly a way to bring sceptics on board, especially when wealthy and privileged campaigners who have co-opted wokeness do not even follow their own standards, such as celebrity Dame Emma Thompson, who flew across the world to join an Extinction Rebellion protest about climate change in London in 2019. This particular protest involved blocking bridges and roads in the heart of London, including stopping ambulances, and the public outrage was so great that it damaged its own cause, as it provided the impetus for a new Police Bill which will restrict noise levels and timings for future protests.

Another example is the turbulent debate about trans-rights and gender identity. Trans people want to be accepted for who they are, including being legally recognised as the gender they wish. The UK already provides a Gender Recognition Certificate, through which one can change their legal sex but only after time requirements and medical checks, which many in the trans community consider demeaning. Trans activists are therefore campaigning to reduce these checks in order to make it easier to legally change sex. These voices deserve to be heard. However, it is also reasonable to listen to the women who are expressing concerns about what this might mean for women in private spaces, such as in changing rooms, toilets and, more significantly, prisons and services such as domestic violence shelters.

Unfortunately, the instinct of modern wokeness seems to be to shut down such debate. The famous author of Harry Potter, J K Rowling, found herself at the centre of a woke storm after liking a tweet by Maya Forstater, who lost her job in 2019 after tweeting that “male people are not women”. The reaction was immediate, with some accusing Forstater of “killing trans people with her hate” for simply expressing an opinion. Rowling penned an emotional essay to explain her rationale for supporting Forstater. In it, she confessed that she had once been in an abusive relationship and could therefore see why single-sex spaces for vulnerable women should be protected.

British tabloid The Sun shamelessly jumped at the chance to sell more papers by producing a front-page interview with the man who had abused Rowling, under the headline: I slapped JK and I am not sorry. The woke response to Rowling’s essay had essentially provided a platform in the right-wing media for a domestic abuser to gloat about his abuse.

The aforementioned Maya Forstater took her former employer, the Washington-based, Hillary-Clinton-friendly, international development think-tank, the Center for Global Development, to an employment tribunal to contest the decision not to renew her contract. But it ruled that her views were “incompatible with human dignity”. This was recently overturned after an appeal, meeting the legal test that Forstater’s right to express her views was protected under the UK’s equality laws. So, she is protected by the law, but at the end of the day, she still lost her job.

Wokeness can also shut down good causes. In 2019, Canada’s oldest women’s domestic violence shelter, based in Vancouver, was stripped of local authority funding because it refused to accept trans women (who were biologically male). Perhaps the shelter should have handled the issue differently, as the local authority won a short-term victory in the name of “inclusion”. But the crippling of an essential service only meant further division and long-term damage to the cause.

It seems some civil society institutions have also become more radical, leaving even their original champions flustered. Simon Fanshawe, a pioneer in equality rights and founder of Stonewall, was disowned by the very charity he founded for merely highlighting concerns from women about the introduction of self-ID for trans people, signalling that the charity now mandates only rigid conformity to its new focus on gender ideology and a hierarchy of wokeness that is splitting the progressive agenda.

Social media has also raised the stakes. Where an offensive remark may once have resulted in a scolding from a friend or foe, people are now only a tweet away from being “cancelled” – a relatively new term for withdrawing one’s support for a person – which could result in losing your job or worse. Marion Millar, a “gender critical” feminist and accountant, was arrested by Scotland Police earlier this month for posting tweets expressing her views. One of them was a picture of a suffragette ribbon tied to a fence, which a complainant had described as a noose. Her tweets may have been poorly phrased and deeply offensive to some, but she now faces a potential jail term of up to six months – the same maximum length as a common assault charge against an emergency worker – with the possibility of her autistic children being taken into care.

The way some companies have tried to cringingly commercialise and adopt social movements and their language has also further devalued and trivialised the notion of wokeness. In 2017, Pepsi launched a high-budget TV advertisement featuring the (wealthy and privileged) model Kendall Jenner at a mock protest reminiscent of Black Lives Matter. In the advertisement, the conflict between protesters and police is quickly resolved – to the applause and adulation of the crowd of protesters – when she presents a can of Pepsi to a handsome police officer. The ad was met with a hailstorm of criticism for monetising social justice and trivialising the Black Lives Matter movement.

McDonald’s in California celebrated International Women’s Day in 2018 by inverting their golden arches logo to a W, sparking outrage from unions over McDonald’s historical resistance to increases in the minimum wage, which particularly impacts women given US labour statistics that show how women make up almost two-thirds of minimum-wage earners in the country. This all results in a climate of resentment, with “woke” now as likely to trigger an eye roll as it is to describe a progressive philosophy.

Individual socially progressive policies have long already commanded support across populations, even in conservative administrations. The UK’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson, often perceived as a right-wing populist by the left, was actually one of just five Conservative MPs who voted in 2003 to repeal Section 28, which banned local authorities from teaching or publishing material that can be seen to “intentionally promote homosexuality”. The Conservatives subsequently passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013, a major progressive achievement. It is hard to imagine that same success now if the campaign had been labelled as a “woke” movement, given how the term has been weaponised.

The challenge for socially progressive activists now is to ensure the next priority – tackling climate change – is not solely packaged as a woke project, otherwise centre-right and right-wing parties may be more reluctant to jump on board, just as has happened in the climate-sceptic US Republican Party.

No systemic problem can be solved without both sides listening. How do we give permission to people to engage in debate without slapping them down for having a different view? How can we create a shared perspective without alienating another group? Where do we place the threshold between an honest misunderstanding derived from one’s upbringing and a menacing hate crime? These questions are not asked enough, let alone answered, but if we do ask them, we could make progress without ever having to say the word “woke” again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.