Spend enough time online and you’ll start to recognize the buzzwords currently standing in for broader social conflicts—maybe even before they enter the mainstream via cable news punditry and hot takes. A new “moral panic” looms with every feed refresh; commentators rail at the rise of “illiberalism”; “wokeness” is classified as a wholesale belief system, galvanizing the Twitter mob.
But if you scroll through social media, you’ll note these words are used so often—and to refer to such a wide variety of situations—they often cease to mean much of anything. Reality is a lot more complicated than the manufactured outrage would suggest, which is why you should refrain from using these kinds of hot-button phrases as much as possible unless you’re sure what you’re speaking about.
What is ‘wokeness?’
No word is causing more of a furor in online spaces right now than “woke,” a modern term that describes a much older mindset—namely, a commitment to social justice and racial and economic equity. Opponents of “wokeness” frame it as a contemporary bogeyman—a system of thought that prioritizes politically correct thinking over logical problem solving that is making dangerous inroads in our nation’s military, schools, philanthropic organizations and beyond, putting presumably functional institutions in the crosshairs of a cohort of culture warriors.
But if that’s what wokeness means to its most feverish detractors, it’s often used by less militant types simply to describe things they don’t like. A good example is a recent blog by NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, who urges recent graduates to be “warriors, not wokesters” as they enter the workforce.
To be clear, Galloway isn’t exactly aligned with the crowd attempting to turn “critical race theory” into a pejorative, but his blog does provide a masterclass in conflating self-advocacy in the workplace with cynically “playing the victim.”
Structural racism is real, and our economic system is tilted, if not rigged. The most accurate predictor of your opportunities isn’t your intelligence or work ethic but where you’re born. But playing the victim decreases your capacity to be a warrior against these injustices. Pursuing the politics of personal identity ensures you will remain an individual, alienated and alone. Warriors sacrifice for the tribe, but they recognize they are part of a tribe. Separate people from ideology, or you give up access to 50% of potential relationships and allies.
In an era defined by staggering economic inequality, stagnant wages, and diversity as a corporate PR tactic, Galloway isn’t urging young employees to stay away from wokeness—he’s telling them not to advocate for themselves. They are two different things, clearly, but by casting self-advocacy (or even complaining) as a symptom of the purported social disease of wokeness, he’s making his essay more culturally resonant—more clickable—at the expense of clarity.
Galloway’s piece is a direct example of why you should always use more specific words instead of falling back on divisive, zeitgeist-y phrases—because the latter often only serve to perpetuate the cycle of outrage that feeds social media.
Say what you really mean instead
While it’s unclear how many young employees across the nation regularly join “a Twitter mob seizing on a hapless middle manager,” as Galloway writes, the concept is certainly largely illusory, especially for those who don’t work in public-facing fields. It seems like what Galloway actually means to say is that fresh workers should roll with the punches rather than crater in the face of discouragement. That’s fair enough, but casting real efforts to create a better, more equitable work environment—through, say, unionizing—as bandwagoning wokeness only sets back the effort to enact meaningful institutional change.
Outside of the circumstances suggested by Galloway’s essay, calling something woke, regardless of your intentions or beliefs, increasingly frames those you’re labeling with the word as antagonistic or hysterical. You can be more exacting in your assessment—and avoid contributing to the latest cultural rage cycle—by using precise language.
If you feel a person or party is being silenced or diminished in some capacity by another, you can say, “It sounds like you’re trying to keep them from sharing a fair point”; if you think someone is being too reactionary, you might offer, “I think it might be helpful to assume best intentions here.” In either instance, you’d be doing a lot more to promote mutual understanding than you would by throwing a loaded word like “woke” into the conversation.