The word “woke” – originally used to describe awareness of discrimination – has been adopted by figures on the political right to discredit policies and politicians they deem too progressive, experts say.
The word was sent to the Liberals and NDP earlier this week by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. And some liberals danced around the term when asked about it by reporters.
“It’s a rapidly evolving term,” said Jennifer Saul, a professor specializing in the philosophy of political language at the University of Waterloo.
“For a time there were people who happily identified as being awake. This has now been adopted as a term of abuse.”
Some liberals distance themselves
After Poilievre was elected leader of the Conservatives, several Liberal MPs told Radio-Canada that they wanted their party to turn to the center to combat Poilievre’s populist conservatism.
“We need a down-to-earth and less awake government,” a deputy told Radio-Canada, speaking on condition that he not be identified.
Poilievre would later call the Liberals and NDP – who back the government through a confidence and supply agreement – a “woke radical coalition” in his first caucus address as Conservative leader.
Poilievre’s use of “woke” as a pejorative prompted a number of Liberal ministers to circle the word cautiously during the party’s caucus retreat earlier this week.
“Honestly, I don’t even know what it means to be awake. I work to serve Canadians,” said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.
“I certainly don’t believe I’m awake, believe me, and no one in my family believes it either,” said Innovation and Science Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
Even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did not explicitly embrace the term when asked about it during a CBC radio interview. The House – although he said he doubted Poilievre understood what that meant.
“I don’t think Mr. Poilievre knows what he means when he says that. I don’t think he understands what he’s saying when he just throws the words out,” Singh told host Catherine Cullen during the interview that aired Saturday.
“I think that’s a baseless position. It doesn’t really correspond to reality,” he said, adding that his party’s goal was to help Canadians.
Where does the word come from?
The use of the term “woke” in a political context originated with black activists in the United States in the early to mid-20th century, according to Terri Givens, professor of political science at McGill.
Givens said it was used as a term of vigilance, calling for greater public awareness of racial discrimination. As a black woman growing up in the United States, she said, she was very familiar with the term.
“I’ve heard that term all my life,” she said. “It’s a term that means, ‘We have to realize that [discrimination is] happens to us.'”
Givens said that although the term has been used within black communities in North America for decades, it gained prominence in the broader public discourse during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Saul said that in the years since the rise of Black Lives Matter, people have begun to apply the term more broadly to raising awareness of other social issues, such as sexism, poverty and the challenges facing LGBTQ people.
Both Saul and Givens said the term has since been seized upon by right-wing figures to castigate people or policies they consider too progressive.
“It’s become a blunt instrument of the right,” Givens said.
Saul agrees but notes that “awakened” has also acquired a negative meaning on the left. The term “woke-washing,” she said, is used to describe the actions of people or organizations that try to convince others that they care about certain issues.
Woke up in the current political climate
Saul and Givens said Poilievre’s use of the word to discredit liberals, and subsequent attempts by some liberals to distance themselves from it, are not surprising. The same things are happening in the United States and Europe, they said.
“I think a defense of ‘Yes, I’m awake and proud of it’ is unlikely to succeed because the term ‘awake’ has become so appropriate,” Saul said.
Givens said she doesn’t think the historical context of the term is understood by liberals or conservatives.
“It really hurts me to see politicians throwing these terms around… [as] a little soundbite, instead of having a nuanced conversation,” she said.