What does it mean to be ‘woke’? Who drives the ‘woke agenda’? Why has it become the most divisive term in modern society? How do we make things better?

The origins of woke stems from the African American community, who began using the phrase with increasing regularity in the 1940s. The basic premise was to become woken up to issues of injustice.

The idea of being woke has grown in popularity across America over the past century but it was not until the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that the term grew global wings.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of woke is to be ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’.

There are many more slight deviations of the woke definition, but we can take that opposition to racial and social injustice as the core principle, which surely means the overwhelming majority of society is woke.

Who wants racial injustice? Who wants social injustice? Who wants injustice or discrimination of any kind? Injustice is a lack of fairness and fairness is at the heart of everything we hold dear.

The actress and comedian Kathy Burke famously said: “I love being woke. It’s much nicer than being an ignorant *******!”

Burke went on to bemoan some in the older generation for using the word woke as an insult, a negative term used against young people who are inspired by activism.

“I think activism is part of being young,” said Burke. “They’re calling you woke if you call out bad things. If you’re not racist, you’re woke. If you’re not homophobic, you’re woke. Be woke, be wide awake.”

While they may not use the term woke so readily, mainly because of the growing backlash in other parts of society, it is probably fair to say young people are a major driving force behind the woke agenda and, speaking very generally here, it is also an idea warmly embraced by those on the left side of the political argument.

And, as a painfully obvious and boring consequence, if woke is being pushed by the young and the left, it will be opposed by older people and those on the right side of politics, just as will happen in reverse for a different issue.

This scenario has played out for decades, centuries probably.

Young people want change, they want a new world for their future, while older people want to retain the values that were important to them when they were young. And you can guarantee political actors will tag their banner to one side of the argument, probably more for popularity than principle.

Of course, the great irony is that today’s young people crying out for change and smearing the views of older people as out-dated will find themselves in the same ageing boat in a few decades. The generation after them will also want change and the current woke brigade, now in middle age, will resist.  

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was once asked if President Biden was woke. Mr Johnson replied that there was “nothing wrong with being woke but it was important to stick up for your history, your traditions and your values”.

What traditions and values are Mr Johnson referring to in this response? If making this comment in the context of a discussion on being woke, going back to our original definition of the term, the understandable link is that he is referring to the traditions of inequality and injustice?

Nobody wants that!

So why has the term woke become so divisive?

We all have a theory and mine is that the message is too often delivered with such smug superiority that many people react negatively to the deliverer of the message, rather than the actual content of the message.

There are many factors to this argument, but I honestly believe a major driver of the division is celebrity culture and the desperate, insatiable need to be liked, to be popular, to never offend.

The BBC is regularly accused of enforcing a woke agenda. If you are on social media, you will know that any debate or conversation surrounding the BBC will contain an overwhelming volley of complaints about the BBC ‘ticking boxes’ or ‘appealing to the minority’ to fit their woke agenda.

One example comes from the Radio Five presenter Nihal Arthanayake, who treats us to his wonderfully perfect view of the world most weekday afternoons.

During the winter, Arthanayake, who comes from Sri Lankan descent, attended a journalism diversity conference and complained that an “overwhelmingly white” working environment was affecting his mental health. “It really affects me that I walk in and all I see is white people,” he added.

The online response was rapid and largely negative.   

The basic accusation was that Arthanayake, a staunch advocate of woke values, was himself being racist and there was an impassioned feeling of double standards. How can someone so vocal on issues of race make such an overt complaint about a different racial group?

Arthanayake took on his critics and, in many cases, rightly so! Some of the comments he received were abhorrent, horrific racism aimed at someone who had merely expressed a view.

Some comments, however, were reasoned and rational. Where Arthanayake, and too many in the celebrity sphere fall down is their inability to accept that maybe, just maybe, the comments were poorly delivered.

It feels like a culture among woke advocates of: ‘I am right, my view of the world is correct and any discussion to the contrary is ignorant, uneducated’.

Nobody likes being told what to do or how to think, and when it is done with such nauseating smugness and superiority, natural human instincts are to react with negativity to the message.

So, how do we make things better?

Gradually, over time, the term woke needs to disappear from political and social discourse. It is irreversibly tainted; we should strive to talk sensibly and calmly about the values of fairness and justice.  

In our own minds, we all have a unique idea of how to define fairness and justice.

It is part of being an adult to accept others will have a different definition. It is also part of being an adult to listen to those differing views with an open mind, be flexible to adapt your views and also mature enough to politely disagree.

Woke doesn’t work, the term is too politicised, too polarising, the message has gotten lost. Perhaps we just go back to focussing on fairness and justice, and we try to do it without shouting, because that never works either.  

Please leave your comments on our social media pages or you can email them to me on tim.herbert@newsquest.co.uk