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Why the Battle Over “Woke” Language Misses the Point

A neon sign of the word "woke"

“The Woke Mob Comes For Comic Strips,” said the headline of a story about the cancellation of Scott Adams’ Dilbert syndicated cartoon.

Florida is where “woke goes to die,” the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, likes to say.

“No, ‘Wokeness’ Did Not Cause Silicon Valley Bank’s Collapse,” said a recent headline in The New York Times.

The term "woke" originated as a good thing, a way to describe awareness of social and racial injustices. But along the way, it became a bad thing, with some now using it as an insult to discredit culturally sensitive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. The 4-letter word is wielded by the left as a badge of honor and attacked by the right as a threat to democracy. For some, woke is simply derided as a joke.

A recent USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 39% of Americans associate “woke” with being “politically incorrect.” It’s perceived as a compliment among Democrats and people ages 18 to 49, but an insult by Republicans and people ages 50 to 64, the poll showed. Roughly one-third of the 1,023 respondents were Democrats, one-third were Republicans, and one-third identified as independents.

Why does this matter? Because language has power — and communication is becoming increasingly polarized. If we turn words into symbols, then words can become warfare that drives people to deeply unchangeable positions based in rhetoric, rather than fact.

Take the collapse of the 40-year-old institution Silicon Valley Bank. Experts attribute the crisis to the recent loosening of key 2008 banking reforms, along with poor risk management by bank officials. But critics are also blaming the bank’s commitment to environmental and social investments and board diversity.

“So these SVB guys spend all their time funding woke garbage rather than actual banking and now want a handout from taxpayers to save them.” — U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in a Tweet March 13

Even left-leaning comedian Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time, has criticized the performative virtue signaling of wokeness. Citing an article in The Atlantic that took aim at the Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide, Maher said, “There’s an order that comes from a small group of people, we don’t know who they are, we can’t ask. It comes from on high. And they’re saying, ‘You need to say Latinx now,’ and you need to say, you know, ‘person experiencing homelessness.’ And I feel like this is why woke becomes a joke because you’d rather rename it than solve it.”

Here’s a thought: Instead of arguing about the meaning of “woke” language, what if we used words more constructively to say what we really mean? What if we wanted to actually listen to the opinions of others and have civil discourse? If we communicated more respectfully, even if we disagreed, how much more productive could our conversations be?

That’s the mission of Reflect’s AI communications coach, which is trained to help people communicate more confidently and collaboratively by providing an objective view of what they’re saying and how it might be interpreted by others. This tool gives users an opportunity to adjust their tone and content in real time.

If that seems too “woke,” consider that 91% of workers today say their messages have been misunderstood or misinterpreted, and that 20% say these misinterpretations and misunderstandings have led to demotions, reprimands, and even losing their jobs, according to a 2022 survey.

As an experiment, I ran Sen. Hawley’s message through Reflect AI, not once, but twice. Both times, it flagged the message for profanity, asking, “Really want to say this?” and “Thought this through?”

Speaking of experiments, David Ulin, an author and professor at the University of Southern California, has a test going on in his classroom. He’s trying to stop himself from addressing his students as “you guys,” opting for “everyone,” “you all,” and “all of you” instead.

“This is not an undertaking driven by ‘wokeness,’ itself a glib, amorphous coinage to be avoided,” Ulin wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times. “Rather, it’s meant as a gesture of respect. The majority of these students are women, and I want to be precise. Language is a tool — even, for good and ill, a weapon — and in order for it to be effective, it needs to be consciously deployed.”

Carolyne Zinko is Alphy’s Editorial Director.

Reflect by Alphy®, our AI-powered coach, helps you and your team communicate in a more productive way. Reflect analyzes communication from all angles — ageism, sexism, racism, confidence, sentiment, apologies, and more — to make you aware of your words, tone, and speech across all your devices, from desktop to mobile.


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