Sam Was Not Woke

One of the definitions of woke in Sam Johnson’s 1755 dictionary gives the sense of the word as it has been used since at least the 13th century, as the past tense of wake:

Not to sleep … To be roused from sleep … To cease to sleep

The English language changes of course, and now over 250 years later the word has some very different meanings, usages, and connotations. As usual, you can’t rely on the Urban Dictionary for a dependable definition, because they seem to simply accept all contributions and then present as the main meaning the one that gets the most votes. It’s a stupid way to run a dictionary. However, one advantage is that an Urban Dictionary definition does give a sort of up-to-date definition, though with attitude and bias. The current top-voted one (with a usage example), from 2018, is:

The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue
Yeah most people don’t care about parking spaces for families with disabled pets. I wish they were woke like me.

On second thought, that’s not a bad definition.

Looking at more authoritative sources for a definition of what the woke movement is, though, the online Collins dictionary gives:

Someone who is woke is very aware of social and political unfairness

The standard authority for Australian English, Macquarie, gives:

Sensitised to prejudice and conscious of its manifestations in society

Tony Thorne, who maintains the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London, blogged in January about the origins of the term, and how its meaning has changed so quickly and frequently and substantively. It’s not just a simple case of a new word being positive and slowly changing to be negative. He writes that it started as a term in Black culture, lost that origin, became an anti-Black racist slur, and now — and I’m skipping several steps in between — it has come to mean, quoting @JournoJoshua, “excessive social awareness.” My friend V adds something about the connotations:

Woke in its more recent sense, seems to me a trendy term, used to mean awareness/identity of whatever topic is at hand, a way of showing support for same … It just seems self-congratulatory, an I’m-so-cool moment.

In my view, things have changed even since January, and the term has different meanings depending on what your politics are. My friend S gives this excellent definition:

Woke is the earnest attempt to do the right thing at the expense of reason, humility, history, civil society, and personal dignity.

This points to some of the main problems I have not with the term per se, but with how people’s belief in it as a legitimate outlook on society is having some scary consequences. Its negative aspects as a way of thinking and as a movement have infiltrated some of the most important values of free, civilized, democratic life. The main one, and the one I find most angering, is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This manifests in two aspects of society.

The first is in the explicit and implied restraints that are attempted to be enforced on artistic expression. This canard is so old it used to be a duck. Artistic expression by definition has to be free of control by not only the state itself, but by special-interest groups within the state who have biases and preferences they want to claim as their sole possession. An artist does not work that way. Cannot work that way. One of the main hoped-for changes by the woke is that “stories” of a certain group can be told only by members of that group. Indigenous people are the only people who can tell Indigenous stories. Men can’t write from a woman’s point of view. A non-Black person cannot say or write certain words in any context, no matter how educational or professional.

I can at least opine on the part of artistic expression and say, in my view, and categorically — that an artist must be allowed — I cannot even phrase it like that — I have to say: an artist expresses themself in whatever voice and with whatever instruments they see fit. There is no “allowing.” There is no permission. Art of course exists in society — though I imagine a happy artist somewhere, in the woods, carving what he damn well pleases and not worrying about whether it looks like a duck (or a dick). Art exists in society but it is not subject to the rules that society considers proper at the time.

The same thing applies for expression generally. People need to be allowed to say what they want to say. Your right to swing your fist doesn’t necessarily end where someone else’s face begins. Sometimes disobedience, civil and otherwise, is called for. It’s never any surprise that when dictators of one flavour or extremity or another take over, one of the first things they start to control is the media. Shut down dissent. Don’t have people saying things in public, especially on potentially large forums like the internet, that happen either not to be in line with your goals or are straight-up opposed to them. And if the pesky activists and artists persist, well, there’s always killing, right?

The great Vladimir Nabokov, from whom I quote so much that some of my friends are starting to roll their eyes, writes this about fiction, but it could be applied to all artistic expression:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

I don’t want to twist Nabokov’s words into meanings and contexts which he didn’t intend — he was notoriously picky about that sort of thing — but a similar statement could be made about general free expression and not just artistic expression. You have to do a few substituions though (sorry, Vladimir):

  • “Topical trash” is then the logorrheic blatherings which those who are categorically sure of their opinion bleat on all media
  • And the “literature of ideas” is the putative received wisdom, the conclusions that the woke have come to after much shouting in their echo chamber, and much support from politicians desperate to be on the right side of correctness du jour

· · · · ·

So what does any of this have to do with Sam Johnson? Two things at least.

  • Sam was, among many other things, an artist, and the mode and content of what he had to say certainly weren’t agreeable to everyone. He was also a political pamphleteer in his later life, and of course if you are on one side of a political issue then you definitely have people lined up against you on the other side.
  • Some of his writing would be characterized as sexist these days by wokeists and even by less militant people. Two famous quotes of his come to mind:
    • After Boswell had told him about a meeting of Quakers that he had attended: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
    • Speaking of the great writer and scholar Elizabeth Carter: “My old friend Mrs. Carter could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek.”

These kind of make anyone cringe a little today, even though the first one was likely a joke and the second one was actually meant as a compliment. In any case, definitely not woke.

In my podcast, I explore this idea further, going beyond the non-PC tidbits about preaching and making pudding. Listen, please …

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