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Word of the year: “woke”. Destroying the cis-heteronormative white male fascist patriarchy one tweet at a time.


At the start of 2019, few but the politically committed used the term “woke”. If they’d heard it at all, most people would’ve assumed it had something to do with insomnia. Woke” only entered the Oxford English dictionary last year as meaning: “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”. Like it’s parent “politically correct”, woke is a passion of the urban left. It is PC for the age of LBGTQIA+. 

The Guardian suggested “woke” as word of the year 2019, which arguably it should be, though not for the reason it thinks. For woke has rapidly changed meaning in the last 12 months, and become a term of derision, referring to a style of self-righteous, right-on thinking favoured by, well, Guardian columnists. It is now used to denote the metropolitan identity politics that contributed to Labour’s greatest defeat since the 1930s.

No one is entirely sure where the word “woke” came from, except that it emerged from African-American vernacular for “staying alert”, as in “stay woke, brother”. In recent years it was was adopted by the BlackLivesMatter movement in America with their hashtag #staywoke – meaning keeping black issues uppermost on social media. 

It was soon adopted by white Millennials to emblemise, not just racial awareness, but a whole identitarian outlook on life. Woke expresses the ultra-feminist, multi-cultural, gender non-conforming culture fashionable in American and UK campuses. 

 Woke people love people of colour and loathe “straight white males”, “gammon” and “boomers”. They adore so-called “non-binary” people who claim not to identify with any particular gender. No one is quite sure what non-binary means. Do they swing both ways? No, that’s bisexual. Are they transgender? Definitely not, and nor are they intersex. It’s one of nature’s mysteries. 

Wokeness has recently taken the media and advertising world by storm. Branded companies eager to keep up with the zeitgeist, waste no opportunity to wave the rainbow flag and include multi-ethnic themes. This is sometimes called “woke-washing”. Every television advert from McDonalds to John Lewis now has to feature a multiracial family, as if the advertisers believe that having two white people on one sofa is racism. 

The BBC drama “Years and Years” was kind of Woke Family Robinson. Black professional mother, trans daughter, gay cousin, asylum seeker boyfriend, disabled sister..all fighting the good fight against the fascism of Brexit Britain. This compendium of woke identitarianism came complete with a middle-aged white dad, who naturally emerged as a morally worthless, adulterous creep, fit only to be punished by losing all his money. 

Woke is easy to satirise and has been, mercilessly, by the comedian Andrew Doyle with his social media creation, Titania McGrath. She is a 24 year-old middle class gender studies graduate, obsessed by her own imagined victimhood. She identifies bravely as an ecosexual, non-binary person of colour and fights for social justice by writing appalling poetry. “The only thing that’s white about me”, says Titania, “is my skin”. 

Men who have sexual dreams are guilty of rape, according to Titania, and should hand themselves in to the police. The Mr Men books are guilty of heteronormative mansplaining.  Ms McGrath of course thinks that women can have penises, which is a touchstone woke belief.

Woke folk thought Titania was the product of the homophobic, alt-right, fascist MSM (mainstream media) – or did until her creator, a gay Labour voter, was exposed last year. She is one of the great satirical creations of the 21st Century,  just don’t expect Mr Doyle to get invited onto the Mash Report. 

Woke is no joke. The left’s penchant for identity politics has had political consequences. The social media assault on “white working class” Brexit voters as racists and bigots, echoed by comedians like Steve Coogan, was a factor in the alienation of traditional Labour constituencies in the 2019 general election. People in Bolsover, Workington and Sedgefield don’t much like being portrayed as fascists. Who knew?

There is a sanctimoniousness and intolerance about woke culture that is itself sometimes redolent of the authoritarian right, especially its approach to language. Anyone who mistakenly says “coloured people” instead of “people of colour”, for example, will be immediately ostracised. Pronouns must be obeyed. Feminist academics are no-platformed if they dare to question whether transwomen are biologically female. 

Barak Obama, took time out this year to warn the Democratic Party to avoid this self-righteous “woke” politics with its “cancel culture”. This is the practise of social justice warriors on Twitter demonising anyone who fails to conform to their particular form of non-conformism. If Trump wins again next year, it will in part because the Democrats haven’t listened.

There is an anti-science, quasi-religious aspect to woke. Woke biology insists that sex is not innate but is “attributed” at birth – as if every child is born transgender. During the general election campaign, the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, tried, with unfortunate results, to defend the woke dogma that biological sex doesn’t exist. 

Woke wars are currently raging in the Scottish National Party and have been since Nicola Sturgeon declared her support for Self-ID – a change in the law to allow transgender people to self-identify as women without the need for medical intervention or convincing evidence that they have lived as women. There has been a vigorous reaction against this from older feminists in and out of the SNP.

They fear that women’s refuges, changing rooms and prisons are liable to be invaded by “beardy men” declaring themselves to be female. They also resent being called “cis” by wokeasians, as if women are merely a subset of their own sex. 

The parliamentary candidate for Kirkcaldy, Neale Hanvey, who was dropped by the party for anti-Semitism, is thought by many nationalists, including the outspoken SNP blogger, Wings Over Scotland, to have been a victim of woke commissars in the SNP hierarchy. Hanvey had signed the “Women’s Pledge” conceived by gender critical nationalists like the MSP Joan McAlpine, which calls for women’s sex-based spaces to be protected. His re-election was seen as a proxy vote against woke. 

The general election has not caused any obvious soul-searching among the woke cadres. Indeed, the verdict of the Guardian writer, Paul Mason, was a pitch perfect expression of the woke world view. The election was, he declared: “a victory of the old over the young; racists over people of colour; selfishness over the planet”.

Such is the firm belief of the morally-superior who spend their lives in an echo chamber saving the world from from imagined hate crimes. It’ll take more than a landslide defeat to persuade them otherwise.

A version of this appeared in the Herald on Sunday.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?

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