Colin McEnroe (opinion): Can we put ‘woke’ to bed already?

With the U.S Capitol in the background, thousands of demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

With the U.S Capitol in the background, thousands of demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.

Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press

The good news: linguist John McWhorter says “woke” and “wokeness” will eventually be over.

The bad news: maybe not until 2028 and, even then, destined to be replaced by another word.

I am ready for wokeness to be over right now.

Sign up to get Colin’s newsletter delivered to your inbox, for free

I’m a liberal, I think. If I have any doubt about that, all I have to do most weekends is scan my emails from conservative Hearst readers who are happy to inform me that I am a “liberal @#$% or a *&%$ing liberal” or, of course, the charming portmanteau that mashes “liberal” with an outdated and offensive term for people with mental disabilities.

But to people on the left, I am increasingly unsatisfying, because I do not check off enough woke boxes. We’ll come to that in a second.

But first: the term itself is older than you think. McWhorter traces its published use back to a 1962 piece in The New York Times about Black slang. Starting eight or nine years ago, it skyrocketed to popularity on social media. “Stay woke” was a thing.

In recent years, wokeness has done what all skyrockets do. It has plummeted to earth. These days, it feels a bit like a millstone, dragging liberals and Democrats down with the weight of its tiresomeness. It’s more effective as a taunt from the right — you can buy Trump T-shirts that say “Everything woke turns to s--t” — than as a rallying cry for the left.

James Carville has been saying that wokeness could wreck the Democratic Party in 2021. Bill Maher has been saying he’s succeeding comedically by mocking wokeness in his stand-up shows.

Back in the day, says Maher, "There was no such thing as woke, and now they (the left) do have a crazy section, which I call out as a liberal. I think I'm kind of one of the only people doing that, so there's a hunger to hear that."

I don’t eagerly join their ranks. Carville was the guy who said Paula Jones was what you get when you drag $100 through a trailer park. Maher is a narcissistic popinjay.

But they are my brothers in exhaustion. Wokeness makes me tired in a way that “political correctness” never did, even though it could be argued that the two movements run on the same railroad tracks.

The biggest difference is, I think, social media, which is populated by people with time on their hands and surplus energy. Social media allows them to band together and enforce a bunch of norms that are not really spelled out anywhere.

I notice this in some of the critiques directed at the Friday edition of my public radio show, a weekly roundtable on culture known as the Nose.

For those episodes, I draw from a group of 15 to 20 regulars. They were all chosen because they’re smart and good talkers, but — because I really do get the issue of representation — we are proud to have people of color and LGBTQ folks in the mix.

And yet ...

When we discussed the college faculty seriocomic series “The Chair,” we used our three panelists (two women, one man) who have spent their careers on college faculties. I also teach college, and I claim “lived experience” bonus points for being the cross-racial adoptive parent of a Latinx child, which is also the case for the protagonist of “The Chair.”

But we took wokeness-driven flak on social media for having no Asian panelist. Sandra Oh has the starring role on “The Chair.”

When we discussed the movie version of “In the Heights,” the panel consisted of a gay man, a Black woman and me. The rationale behind those choices that all three of us have experience putting theatrical musical works onstage.

This time, the criticism was our failure to include a Latinx person, which was ironic because the show’s creators were getting trashed on social media for having a too light-skinned Latinx cast, given the darker-complected Dominican Republic population of Washington Heights.

The substructure of these arguments depresses me. The arts, in particular, are supposed to be universal and specific. The notion that only an Asian could fully comprehend “The Chair” seems a bit insulting to the show and its creators. Isn’t the goal of culture to cut through categories and reach a lot of people, as opposed to telling enclaves the stories they already know?

But The Woke, on social media, grab their green eyeshades and No. 2 pencils and start filling out the ledgers. They have never, in the encounters mentioned above, brought up content. They can’t get past the identities of the commenters. It’s the other kind of No. 2.

I share many of their values. I want power and resources reallocated. I want inequalities addressed and past injustices redressed.

What don’t I share?

A tone, I think.

It’s the tone of what journalist Matt Taibbi perfectly describes as “the most moralizing, tendentious, humor-deprived, jargon-obsessed segment of American society.”

Unfortunately (for me) Taibbi used those words to describe the audience to whom public radio — in his opinion — now caters. I don’t think that’s quite fair, but it’s the kind of criticism I’m starting to hear from other liberal listeners.

There’s a paper-thin difference, at times, between good intentions and silly prescriptiveness. Prior to last weekend’s Women’s March in Washington, the organizers instructed marchers not to wear “Handmaid’s Tale” costumes, the red cloaks and white bonnets that were so visually striking at previous marches.

The costume, said the organizers, “erases the fact that Black women, undocumented women, incarcerated women, poor women and disabled women have always had their reproduction freedom controlled in this country.”

That’s a very true and powerful argument being used as the basis for a fairly silly admonition.

Which is how I have come to think of wokeness. Some of the most dire and tragic aspects of the American experience have been co-opted and leveraged to justify ridiculous and divisive rules.

2028 can’t come fast enough.

Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Thursday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5. Email him at colin@ctpublic.org. Sign up for his newsletter at http://bit.ly/colinmcenroe.