In defense of wokeness

May 23, 2022 3:00 am

Agnes Ayoub left the world a better place.(Courtesy of George Ayoub)

He called me “woke.”

I took it as a compliment.

It wasn’t … what with the curling upper lip, narrowing eyes and withering tone. He was busting my chops.

Such is the state of wokeness, a once-useful aphorism nearing 100 years old but recently abducted by culture warriors looking for converts and political candidates hoping to hang albatrosses around their opponents’ necks.

Nebraska’s recent GOP gubernatorial primary campaign — having all the substance of a middle school playground shouting match —used “woke” with adjectival gusto including my favorite, “woke tech.”

While woke’s roots run decades deep, new seeds were planted during Black Lives Matter protests eight years ago, after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. Protesters told each other to stay vigilant and aware, “woke” to further violence against them.

As I understand it, woke’s more universal meaning is to recognize and call out social injustice when and where it lives.

My definition of woke notwithstanding, many have hijacked the word for political use, whether it’s the right disparaging someone they believe to be woke (i.e., liberal or progressive) or the left ridiculing someone as not being woke enough (half [a]woke?).

This misappropriation is yet another instance of political language corrupted to unrecognizable or even comical lengths. Woke now joins political correctness, elites, fake news, socialism, critical race theory and others in a lexicon stripped of original meaning and intent.

The thefts follow a common recipe: Start by misunderstanding a word’s meaning or by disputing, without evidence, a definition that doesn’t square with your beliefs. Stir in a generous portion of smug self-righteous “research” from your favorite blog or talk show. Add a dash of surliness to taste. Steep in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the psychological phenomenon when one believes one knows more than one actually does, and, true to form, is oblivious to one’s own shortcomings. Blend incessantly on social media, and you have yourself a word hijacking, Pal.

Despite woke’s journey from vigilance and self-preservation to today’s linguistic lunacy, consider its simple meaning … or more appropriately, its opposite … and why I took my critic’s jab as an attaboy.

If I’m not woke, what am I? Asleep? Comatose? Incurious? Unknowing? Detached? Blah? Meh?

I can live with being called woke. But sometimes, the vocabulary vandals, intent on scaring people, are way over the line, outside the bounds of both definition and decorum.

Such are recent pronouncements from U.S. House member Elise Stefanik, who has, in the past, played footsie with the gibberish of “replacement theory,” an idea which proved deadly in a Buffalo grocery store earlier this month.

The congresswoman, third in rank among House Republicans, has also made the personal insult her calling card referring to Democrats in mewling, sniveling tweets as socialists, illegals, criminals, communists and — despite trying to walk it back — suggesting the party is in league with pedophiles.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s beyond personal and below insulting.

 This is how personal: Stefanik never knew my mother, a lifelong Democrat who left us in 2016 on her 95th birthday. She was reared in poverty during the Depression. She won a full tuition college scholarship with dreams of becoming a pharmacist. But with no money for bus fare, let alone room and board for four years, she never made it there. Instead she became a school secretary, where she toiled in the service of thousands of children for 35 years. With wit and wisdom, she offered a pat on the back, lunch money for a kid too embarrassed to ask, but most of all a smile and encouragement to students whose homes were bereft of either.

She was neither a socialist, a communist, a pedophile nor acriminal. She worked on political campaigns, paying special attention to policies that affected poverty and “her kids” at school. She left the world a better place.

Because she was woke.

 If she were alive today, she’d be at work to make sure the congresswoman or any of her ilk never made another decision that would affect children or anyone else. And she’d do it without the insults or the lies, because Agnes Ayoub was not just woke. She was kind, something Elise Stefanik knows little about.

 Which brings me to what I should have said to my disparager, what Nebraska voters should have said to the GOP candidates for governor and what somebody should say to Rep. Stefanik.

Yes, I’m woke. Thank you very much.

Why aren’t you?

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.