This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Woke. Slang. They are both four letter words — a euphemism first recorded in 1923 in a slang dictionary (French author, English lexis), with a reference to the concept of a “four-letter-man,” (a three-letter man, meanwhile, is variously a c-a-d or f-a-g). The one a convenient shorthand for words and deeds deemed racially and socially permissable or, perhaps more important, not; the second a hard-to-define catch-all for what I term the “counter-language”.
Opposite poles, one might think. Yet this isn’t simple either.
As a concept, “woke” is slang’s worst enemy. A hard-faced, black-clad puritan determined to eradicate every vestige of joyous, colourful slang’s raison d’être. Everything in which slang delights — insults both individual and stereotyped, obscenity, double entendres, an irrepressible propensity to call every spade a spade — has woke twitching away its sensible, sexless garments in a frenzy of censoriousness.
Slang judges with the blithe insouciance of the playground
Like those establishments geared to “saving” sex workers from their alleged sin, the response is never to offer something useful — an alternative income — but just more nagging, more preaching, more prohibitions. And like those establishments, woke, however currently fashionable, is honoured more in lip service than real observance.
As we know from the wretched re-emergence of such seemingly forgotten, sometimes even illegal phenomena as anti-semitism, nothing, bar human cussedness, can be guaranteed to persist. Slang, an exemplar of just that propensity to offend, maintains the worst of reputations: but it has prospered for over half a millennium.
Yet our supposed opposites have one thing in common: both tend to the judgmental. Like Washington socialite Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s celebrated pillow-cum-sampler, their mutual motto remains, “if you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.”
Still, there’s a serious difference: slang judges with the blithe insouciance of the playground; all careless teases, skittering along the very edge of cruelty and sometimes plunging deep within. It is the world of “just a bit of banter”, of “can’t you take a joke?” Woke, on the other hand, is obsessed with outlawing any such judgments. Not censorship, heaven forfend, but undoubtedly “for your own good”. Which makes the bien-pensants, for all their protestations, equally judgmental.
Like all those who have tried to censor language and behaviour, attempting desperately to subsume the wicked id of unfettered self-gratification beneath the super-ego of self-discipline, the declared justification voiced by woke’s apostles is admirable. Caring, sharing, compassion, the usual parade of virtue. Slang, unfortunately perhaps, wouldn’t recognise such benignities were they to bite it.
The slang/woke dichotomy also works for those who promote a gendered theory of linguistic preference: slang is man-made, harsh, cruel, willy-wavingly self-satisfied in the pub or private dining room. Woke is feminine: opting for the gentle, the emollient, the kind, all those terms that slang, were it to acknowledge them, could barely spell. Though there are tweaks: slang as cheerfully, irresistibly, charmingly, immature, and woke as the never-bridled scold.
But even if slang sometimes resembles the contents of a particularly unpleasant lavatory wall, woke is not common or garden censorship. What was once termed “gelding” is a constant and in 1986 I wrote an Encyclopedia of Censorship to list history’s many, widely discoverable examples.
I doubt if it did much beyond scratching the surface of one section of humanity’s regular attempts to silence another (it was unpublished in the UK. I found this meaningful at the time. Today it would be merely predictable). It had, on the whole, a happy ending: censorship, however assiduous, however terrified and thus barbarous and cruel its proponents, almost invariably fails. We are a determined species, and we will have our say.
For those that woke terms “boomers” (thus including myself), there is a further paradox. When I wrote my encyclopedia, censorship was easy to define: it was, other than for those who embraced such codes, a bad thing. But the advent of woke suggests, loudly and insistently, that this is no longer so. Like the comedians Mitchell & Webb’s aghast if fictional German soldier of meme fame, boomers are forced to wonder over and over: “Are we the baddies?”
It would seem so. The freedoms, among them of speech, for which at least a noisy percentage of my generation fought so hard, and which surely placed them on the side of the angels, now appear as quite the opposite. Lenny Bruce suggested that whoever’s feelings he might risk bruising, “everybody’s ass is up for grabs: rabbis, priests, they all go.” Not today, especially if the clerics (if Bruce failed to include imams it was only through their irrelevance to the West in 1960) have a Facebook page, Twitter handle or some other social media presence. Not them, nor anyone else who feels affronted.
The more obsessed we become by identity politics, the more niche and fissiparous our societies, the more desperately necessary woke becomes. Registering an existence, if only by complaint, is the only way for each groupuscule to survive. But while survival may be admired, the reality is that it is never the intellectuals but the shouters who take over: the zealots, the loudest shouters, the truest believers. Not only am I right and you wrong, but most important — and satisfying — of all is that I have a duty to punish you for it. Woke rejoices in that extra layer of sanctimony, the eternal self-justification of the prohibitor: “a little of what I fancy does you good.”
Yet all this is to play at least a junior to the devil’s advocate. The underlying theories behind woke are, to keep things simple, good. Racism is not, nor are insults based on the stereotypes that so delight slang.
So why find woke’s strictures worrying? Is it the true belief, is it the sanctimony, is it the mob mentality, the implacable tribalism that underlies the decisions of the self-declared community of judgement? What the political commentator Ian Dunt, writing on David Amess’s murder, denotes “the brute force of moral certainty” is not the way to go.
Woke doesn’t appear to offer slang. Maybe it’s too young to have come up with the stuff yet. Like slang’s terms for various minorities — racial, national, sexual — it is the terms that are used to describe (however meanly, however accepting of empty stereotypes) that tend to precede those that are actually generated by the target group which feels itself sufficiently confident to take its own piss.
Woke has yet to achieve that stage. Thus, its current lexis begins with terms that are used — accurately or otherwise — to explain it: cancel culture, victimisation, identity politics. There are those that might be seen as woke’s internal jargon: appropriate, decolonise, problematic, triggering. These tend to what fans might term subtlety and nuance, and opponents see as slippery, weasel words.
N-words, F-words, P-words, all those optimistic omissions
Their abstractions, of course, run opposite to slang’s preference for the concrete. A spade is a spade and “victim” triggers only wide-spectrum mockery. While you may despise slang, you must acknowledge its wit. Ninety per cent of its terminology is simply ludic tweaking of standard terms: dog, with its 150-plus uses, cat with its 100-odd.
Woke as censor has yet to assail my dictionary, even if it is whittling down accessible examples of its contents and elsewhere demanding new definitions of standard usage, renegotiations that include such seemingly stone-set terms as woman. If slang, momentarily, gets even marginally serious enough to offer an apologia it is this, yet again from Lenny Bruce: “the knowledge of syphilis is not an instruction to contract it.”
I understand the social and historical origins of the “N-word”. I can offer examples of the various senses and their individual development over time. It has been used not just judgmentally but also as a term of address or even affection between people of colour since the nineteenth century. So do I even need to add this: I know it is in almost every use, historical and contemporary, to be deplored.
But what I also know is that to have this knowledge, and the knowledge of a wide and depressing range of similar terms, is not to shout it from the rooftops, to attempt its justification, least of all to celebrate it. But whatever the woke may believe, it will not go away.
N-words, F-words, P-words, all those optimistic omissions — technology makes it easy to perform the obliteration. Humanity makes sure that it always bounces back.
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