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Opinion | ‘Woke’ Went the Way of ‘P.C.’ and ‘Liberal’

“Woke” has also followed a trajectory similar to that of the phrase “politically correct,” which carried a similar meaning by the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Politically correct,” unsurprisingly, went from describing a way of seeing the world to describing the people who saw the world that way to describing the way other people felt about the people who saw the world that way. Some in the politically correct crowd on the left had a way of treating those outside it with a certain contempt. This led to the right refashioning “politically correct” as a term of derision, regularly indicated with the tart abbreviation “P.C.” The term faded over the years, and by 2015, when the presidential candidate Donald Trump was declaring that “political correctness is just absolutely killing us as a country,” “woke” already had greater currency.

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Over the past few years, it has become all but impossible to use “woke” neutrally. It has been refashioned, like “P.C.,” as an insult. One could say that this was simply because of contempt for leftist ideas, even ones relating to improving lives for Black people, but only at risk of oversimplification. Wokeness, as a kind of ideology, has irritated so many because of the tendency for some of its partisans to see those who dissent from their views as disingenuous, antidemocratic and even immoral. To be woke, past tense, is to be awake, present tense, to a way of perceiving societal matters. But it’s a short step from seeing matters this way to assuming that it is the only reasonable or moral way to see. That latter assumption has a way of rankling those who see things differently.

Now, those on the left, from Ocasio-Cortez on down, face a new iteration of an old dilemma: A neutral descriptor of their worldview saddled with a negative connotation.

It’s easy to forget how antique, or at least vague, “liberal” feels lately. Much of the reason is that the term was tarnished by the right almost as much as woke has been. In an era spanning, let’s say, Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Newt Gingrich’s House speakership and Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush, those who thought of themselves as liberals in commitment to nudging America toward ever broader embodiments of its ideals, especially those involving the dignity of all individuals, were tarred as unpatriotic sentimentalists dedicated to big government and with insufficient interest in family values.

Writing for The Times in 2009, Timothy Garton Ash hoped we might reclaim the classical meaning of the lowercase-L liberalism we learn about in college, espousing grand but abstract ideas such as “liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism and some notion of human equality, reason and progress.” After all, who could possibly be against any of that?

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