Why Wokeness Refuses to be Named
How do you criticize something that doesn’t exist?
What we name political movements—particularly the ones we don't like—has always intrigued me. Should Islamists be called "Islamists"? After all, it's a made-up word, and it has that "-ism" at the end, which makes it sound like one is accusing the people in question of making Islam into an ideological project. But that's precisely what they're doing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Presumably, they don't think it's a bad thing, otherwise they wouldn't be doing it. In any case, I'm more than comfortable using Islamist, because that's what Islamists call themselves in Arabic—Islamiyoon, which is just an Arabized version of the word in English.
What about the "far-right"? What should we call them? This is something I've had to deal with as part of a Brookings project on Islam and right-wing populism in Europe. As part of the project, we brought together local Muslim activists and members and supporters of right-wing populist parties in the same room and told them to talk to each other. As an experiment, it was a success, perhaps, but only because it was a failure. We learned something important about the limits of dialogue, and now I'm glad that I know it. From the start, definitions were an issue. The far-right participants didn't like the term "far right," so we avoided using it. "Right-wing populist" seems more neutral, since it steers away from making judgments about how extreme a given party is on the ideological spectrum. In many cases, after all, these parties are fairly mainstream, representing the second or third largest parties in their respective countries. Some of their opinions, particularly when it comes to attitudes towards Muslim immigrants, are something close to popular.
Luckily, in both of these examples, we have a mostly neutral term that is widely accepted by both the parties themselves as well as their opponents. When there isn't an accepted term for an ideological—even "revolutionary"—movement, however, things become a bit more complicated.
It's only today, as I write this, that it's finally dawned on me why it's so difficult to extend an olive branch to what might be called the "woke" movement. In recent episodes and on Twitter, we've said that we want to invite on the podcast someone who can properly be called a defender of the "woke" turn in the Democratic Party. We want to "steel-man" their worldview and better understand their starting premises, just as I've done with Islamists and right-wing populists, including podcast guests like Sohrab Ahmari who are fine with the label "illiberal." (Even here, I prefer to use more neutral descriptors like "anti-liberal" or "post-liberal.")
If we wish to better understand wokeness, presumably it would be a good idea to talk to the very people who believe in it. And, at Wisdom of Crowds, it's part of our ethos to listen to ideas we disagree with and even find somewhat dangerous and give them a fair hearing. But, as you can see from the paragraph above, I'm not really sure what to call them. "Woke" has become almost entirely pejorative, so I get why they may not appreciate my use of the word, despite the effort to blunt its impact with scare quotes.