As a language, wokeness is self-consciously engineered to be easier to exploit and use to bully your way to the top if you are a member of a “marginalized group” (to use woke parlance). That is, in a community where everyone speaks wokese, the intention is that a trans woman of color will have her ideas advanced and her enemies thwarted, and will generally be advantaged by the milieu she finds herself within, because that is how the rules are structured.
Is this a good or a bad thing about wokese? Perhaps you object to this kind of linguistic social engineering because any whiffs of newspeak creep you out. Perhaps not. Perhaps you think that trans women of color need a boost, to remediate past and present wrongs against them as individuals or as members of a self-assigned or externally assigned or actually existing collective.
That’s all fine. But let’s put deliberation about the goodness or badness of using language to advance historically marginalized people aside for a moment, because it is downstream of the question of whether wokese actually really does help those people it says it intends to help—or whether it mainly helps some other class of people.
Instead, let’s ask: Who does the woke playing field, as expressed through wokese, actually advantage? As a barrier to entry that is manufactured in universities, mediated by elite institutions and bureaucracies, and is intentionally complex and constantly changing, wokese is a tool that is most easily wielded by the credentialed elite—which suggests that the allegedly vulnerable cohorts in whose name this language is allegedly spoken are actually being used by others as rhetorical camouflage.
In reality, wokeness is a bourgeois sop to self-dealing millionaires. Why? Because those who already have the most resources and power are best positioned to game whatever new system comes about by throwing up obstacles that take training and money to navigate or overcome effectively. In fact, for them, the more obstacles in the course of advancement in any given field, the better. Working people with only a little bit of brainspace in their lives leftover from just making it all work can’t expend nearly as much energy figuring out how to navigate the mazes presented by fast-changing social norms and bureaucratic rituals. Having to learn and then constantly relearn a whole new language just to get along in college or navigate a workplace is an intolerable burden, which sifts them out.
The question at hand in an age where wokeness—i.e., the demand to speak wokese—dominates the institutions where you can go to rise in your social class in America is a much more practical question than whether it is morally just or unjust to create a system which advantages contemporary members of historically marginalized communities if it is possible to, or whether sins are committed by groups and are in fact heritable. Those are philosophical abstractions. The salient question is the same one that Melinda Gates pointed to when she highlighted the issue of “women’s time poverty” as the biggest barrier to women’s rights and equity—meaning, that a woman who spends hours a day walking back and forth from the stream with a bucket probably isn’t going to have as many opportunities to educate and enrich herself as one who can turn on the faucet at the kitchen sink or as the male of the household who she brings water to. It is the same question that would be raised if a school required its applicants to know Latin, as the good colleges once did.
So, in the end, the question raised by wokeness is a simple one: Doesn’t it actually just favor rich people?
Jacques Barzun makes a prediction near the end of his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence that I think about a lot:
Establishing a standard spelling abolished the old democratic right to follow one’s fancy, and the result is that we can still read with relative ease the literature of the last 500 years. During that same time, the vocabulary has suffered losses and changes, the increase in distinctions being much to the good; while the losses and confusions, many due to ignorance in a world of illiterates, were not then cheered along by specialists. The present order of things is not likely to keep the written word readable for another five centuries.
Because I live in Brooklyn, work in journalism, went to private school and a reasonably fancy college, and am friends primarily with workers in the “information economy,” I can speak fluent wokese. I usually don’t speak it, but I can. I don’t like it, I think it sounds bad, and I choose to use English instead most of the time. But I know perfectly well how to sound if I want to go be a consultant or if I need to go to grad school or if I am in an interview for really any job that pays upward of six figures and is based in a city.
Here’s how you do it: You talk about platforms, and spaces, and bodies with your nouns. With your verbs, well, you just use more nouns, plus suffixes that don’t fit. For some reason, this year, you put “settler” before you write “colonialism.” The letter X is very in, as you may have noticed when Elizabeth Warren’s campaign did an event with a group called Black Womxn For. Or maybe you have by now read about the now-infamous wokese imposition of “Latinx” (pronounced Latin-ex) to name a group of people first designated by a Nixon administration-era census as an ethnicity, and whose members either haven’t heard or don’t want to be termed by that label rather than the supposedly problematic “Latino” or “Hispanic.” A recent New York Times essay by progressive strategists Ian Haney López and Tory Gavito found that, “Progressives commonly categorize Latinos as people of color, no doubt partly because progressive Latinos see the group that way and encourage others to do so as well. Certainly, we both once took that perspective for granted. Yet in our survey, only one in four Hispanics saw the group as people of color.”
But pretend you don’t know that. Keep calling Hispanics people of color. Use the phrase “people of color” often enough that you are inclined to shorten it to “POC.” Then, add BI to it, so it is “BIPOC,” for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color.” Wait, but aren’t the Black and Indigenous people in the B and I already implied in the POC? Shh. Don’t worry about that, it’s just how we speak now. In elite American life, wokese syntax is picked up by osmosis, the way I knew that the subjunctive takes the plural in English before I knew the word “subjunctive.”
In wokese, if you say some sort of discrimination exists, you have to say it is “systemic.” It’s just a moral demand that if you talk about one thing, you also have to gesture toward another—but it pretends to be grammar. You do not actually have to explain how the system functions as a system in a way that removes the agency of the actors within it, and indeed you would be messing up the syntax if you did. This is sort of like the previously popular wokese term “problematic,” which unlike its English equivalent does not mean that the person using it intends to expound on what the problem is.
Like many languages that have irregular verbs, wokese also has special rules that mean, in some specified random cases, you do the opposite of what you normally do. So if a wokese sentence is about the Jews, flip the normal rules around. Where you might normally say, “members of this marginalized group suffer from transgenerational trauma from the worst ever instance of genocidal racist violence in living memory, and allowances must be made for that,” if the subject of the sentence is Jews you reverse all that. Here’s Alex Ross, America’s premier classical music critic, in The New Yorker, whose intentional illiteracy must be quoted at some length to be appreciated:
The whiteness of classical music is, above all, an American problem. The racial and ethnic makeup of the canon is hardly surprising, given European demographics before the twentieth century. But, when that tradition was transplanted to the multicultural United States, it blended into the racial hierarchy that had governed the country from its founding. The white majority tended to adopt European music as a badge of its supremacy. The classical-music institutions that emerged in the mid- and late nineteenth century—the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera, and the like—became temples to European gods, as Lawrence Levine argued in his 1988 book, “Highbrow/Lowbrow.” Little effort was made to cultivate American composers; it seemed more important to manufacture a fantasy of Beethovenian grandeur.
Now, Wagner is not the most famous anti-Semite in European history, and he is not the most famous classical composer in history. But that he is the most famously anti-Semitic European classical composer is not the sort of fact even an amateur can avoid. A critic like Ross could not plausibly forget such a fact in writing an article about a reckoning with racism in classical music history. In fact, the term “racism” as the French “racisme” was originally coined to mean the hatred of Jews, and it retains this meaning in English. Ask any Klansman. And since Ross is not an ignorant or illiterate writer, and since he just published a book about Wagner, the only way to make sense of this passage without calling him dishonest is to understand that he is not writing in English, but wokese, with its irregular rules for Jews.
The story Marxian analysis tells us about the power relationship between capitalists and both social and state policy looks like this: Because capitalists hold such undue power over society, they vaunt the ideas that are in their class interest (for example, that working people should meekly accept being exploited); those ideas then become the reigning morality of society. And while the rich use the wealth they already have as leverage to make deals to accumulate even more wealth, they can get the powerful decision-makers in the state and the corporations to award them subsidies, under the guise of obeying neutral, socially acceptable procedures.
Let’s take the example of Raytheon, a defense contractor that pays its executives exorbitantly. The corporation and its executives donate a wildly affordable amount of money to political contenders, and then get a hell of a lot more back when those politicians are marking up the military budget bills that award Raytheon juicy contracts.
Now, if Raytheon’s executives don’t want too much PR trouble because donations-for-contracts look like a cronyist exchange, there is a way around that, too. Instead of having the politicians explicitly say “we are going to buy billions of dollars of profits worth of laser-guided munitions from Raytheon with money we collected in taxes,” which would get everyone mad and possibly cause some of them to lose their power, they do something more coy. The politicians have aides write a complex system of bidding rules for potential contractors, with endless legal compliance regulations written in a language only the highest-paid lawyers and lobbyists can speak properly. Then they put out a request for bids that is almost impossible to reply to successfully unless you have pretty much the levels of education, resources, backchannel connections, and power that Raytheon does.
Since I am a filthy capitalist American, the explanation I personally favor for Raytheon’s success as a company is that Raytheon makes damn good laser-guided munitions. But I think the Marxist analysis is onto a little bit of something, too. So how it all really works is ... both. A July 29 AP report about the latest on the coronavirus relief negotiations in Congress noted that:
The bill, drafted by Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala., would deposit $2.2 billion in Pentagon shipbuilding accounts, boost missile defense systems in California and Alaska and deliver about $1.4 billion for C-130 transport planes and F-35 fighters manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. Some of the F-35s could be delivered to an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Alabama.
The point is, it is clear that the complex system of rules, norms, regulations, and credentials required in the defense industrial complex has yielded a situation where America has the best technology, is the most powerful country in the world in terms of hard power, can deter attacks and make weapons deals with allies, and can underwrite relative postwar global peace. And, this system can sometimes be used by already rich and powerful people to outcompete those without power. Complexity can be used to make it look like they aren’t doing morally corrupt things, when they are.
Of course, actual Marxists seem to think wokeness is something between completely empty nonsense and a cunning usurpation of their political project’s rightful place in the political firmament. See, for example, Matt Bruenig on “identitarian deference” or virtually the entire recent corpus of Adolph Reed. Jacob Siegel has written on this recently in Tablet.
But if Marxists hate wokesters, that doesn’t mean “Marxist” has a negative connotation in wokese. In fact, one of the ways wokese keeps its outsider transgressive language vibe despite being the lingua franca of every international corporation, Hollywood, and monopoly social media platforms—in other words, despite being the language of The Man—is in the nasty inflection it gives to “capitalism,” as though wokeness were a revolutionary threat to the current ruling order rather than the tool of its elites. The fact that Woke Marxism is a cosmetic affectation with zero political content makes for one of the areas in which wokese-to-standard-English translation can be the hardest.
Take this exchange between Tablet contributor Wesley Yang and Jeremy C. Owens, tech editor and San Francisco bureau chief of MarketWatch, the investment news site. Owned by the Murdoch family’s News Corp, MarketWatch tweeted an opinion piece arguing that “Woke capitalism is the future, but it’s not good enough. Racism is embedded in capitalism—and to stop exploiting workers and people of color, we need a new system entirely.” Anyone conversant in wokese who happened upon the opinion piece or the tweet knew exactly what it meant, or was supposed to mean—nothing. Then Yang pointed out on Twitter that this was, firstly, clearly a repudiation of even woke capitalism. Then there was the comic absurdity of a market news site with stock tickers atop it tweeting in the language of the international revolution of the proletariat.
Any Marxist or any ordinary English-speaking liberal could see the humor right away. Not Owens, who pissily insisted on a correction a half dozen times, arguing that “the column says we need to reform capitalism, but admits that may not be enough. It never advocates for the abolition of capitalism, full stop.” He then called for Yang to be fired from this publication.
What followed was a delicious comedy of translation, propelled by Yang’s insistence on understanding the meaning of words in their historical context among ordinary speakers of English. The piece ended as follows: “What is clear is that while the woke transformation of capitalism admittedly improves the opportunities of some people of color, it does little to address the fundamental problems of capital’s exploitation of people and planet, and it may even work as a new legitimation story—call it wokewash—for capitalism’s old racket.” In other words, abolish capitalism—right?
As it happens, I am unsympathetic to the moral claim in the piece though sympathetic to its conceptual analysis. But the humor is undeniable. Yang, pretending that he only understands the plain English meaning of words, arguing with poor Owens, who was stuck lamely asserting that the words his publication printed and tweeted didn’t mean the exact things they said they meant—because the rules of the game didn’t permit him to say “hey, it’s all just woke bullshit we printed to confirm our elite status.”
Capitalism isn’t the only term in wokese that takes on a radically, sometimes opposite or completely unrelated meaning to its ordinary English public definition—and then fails to stipulate that it’s doing so. In fact, the biggest usage difference between wokese and English is about “woke” itself. Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times writer and committee chair of the wokese equivalent of the Académie Française, recently tweeted that “in short order ‘woke’ went from being a playful piece of black vernacular to a euphemism for ‘n*gger lover.’” I don’t recognize this repulsive meaning—a phrase I remember first hearing from my mother in her stories about how in the 1960s the KKK used to paint it across her house, which happened to be located in the Southern town Bouie now lives in.
Of course, Bouie doesn’t mean that anyone literally uses the term “woke” to mean what he says they mean. He would simply like people to stop using the term, and so—according to the rules of the game—he stipulates that it implies a slur, and uses the combination of his race status and his position at The New York Times to try to enforce his will. And no doubt this effort to make the use of the word “woke” “racist,” rather than something we were all enjoined to be just a few years ago (“Get woke!”) will be successful; part of the point of wokese is to destabilize language, which makes it easier to exercise power.
By eliminating the plain meaning of words and the possibility of logical argument and substituting a bizarre class-based bureaucratic jargon and a set of fixed truths, wokese ups the advantages of wealth and position already enjoyed by elites and their children, while keeping unlicensed strivers in their place. I’ve edited friends’ law school personal statements, and I deliberately do not bring my editorial ear to that task. If I did so, I’d be screwing over my friend. Instead, I just cram in as many of the subset of platitudes and jargon that comprise wokese as I can while adhering as much as is possible to the grammatical demands of Standard Written English. It’s all very rote, like reminding someone whose Spanish homework you are helping with that you don’t say “my stomach hurts me” in that language; You say “the stomach hurts me.”
Why? That’s just how Spanish is spoken.
But Spanish is a bad analogue, really. It’s much more like Esperanto, in that few people actually speak it, and it was designed for an explicitly ideological purpose. Much hand-wringing think-piecery was unleashed recently when a scholar named Jessica Krug turned out to have been a Jewish honky all along. Krug had claimed to take part in “‘North African Blackness,’ ‘US rooted Blackness,’ and ‘Caribbean rooted Bronx Blackness,’” according to a sweeping list of her crimes in The New Yorker. “In the course of her academic career, Krug has identified as Algerian, African-American, Black Boricua, vaguely Afro-Latinx, vaguely Caribbean; she’s been from Kansas City, from the Bronx, and ‘of the hood.’”
In fact, Krug had come out as a faker in a Medium post in which she herself announced her fraudulent claims about her heritage. In it, she was not quite able to relinquish the language of wokese, and called for her own banishment—or else she just hand-waves, depending on how you read it. But the point is, it’s very high level wokese:
I believe in restorative justice, where possible, even when and where I don’t know what that means or how it could work. I believe in accountability. And I believe in cancel culture as a necessary and righteous tool for those with less structural power to wield against those with more power.
I should absolutely be cancelled. No. I don’t write in passive voice, ever, because I believe we must name power. So. You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.
What does that mean?
I don’t know.
I don’t know either! None of the accounts I saw of this objectively hilarious affair got the thing quite right. For one thing, it is very hard for some people to acknowledge that there are some specific areas of American life where being nonwhite is a career advantage, even as it is perfectly obvious that white Americans have been and continue to be favored by many laws and social structures in America. A bright graduate of a Kansas City prep school is also likely to know that being Jewish is not an advantage if her interest is in publishing a book like Fugitive Modernities: Kisama and the Politics of Freedom and to get tenure.
Krug acted like every insult about the radical politics of academics being fraudulent nonsense were true, and she embodied a racist caricature that power rewards. She had the class to feed the system what it wanted. She planned her career accordingly, psychopathically, and rationally, within the world where wokese fluency is the coin of the realm. And she almost got away with it, before some plain English questions got too hard for her to answer.
And this is where my guiding metaphor breaks down. Wokese is not a distinct language after all. It is a fashion in English-speaking culture that has the opposite of its claimed effect. Rather than empowering the marginalized, it condescends to them and entrenches the privileges of the already advantaged. It is a new face of the oldest con in the meritocratic capitalist handbook—namely, favoring the lucky and the powerful and the privileged while claiming to be crusading for justice.
Meanwhile, I worry that at the current rate that language is being turned to slurry, the next 50 years will see as much erosion of the readability of written English as the preceding 500. As Barzun describes language in a decaying culture, “the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.”
Nicholas Clairmont is an associate editor at Arc Digital and a regular contributor to the Washington Examiner Magazine, where he writes the Word of the Week feature. He is also a freelance book reviewer and writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @nickclairmont1.