The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

Debating what it means to be woke

- By Mordechai Gordon and JT Torres

The concept of woke has been getting a great deal of media attention lately from both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is engaged in a one-man crusade to rid his state of any trace of woke by banning books, seeking to control what gets taught in AP history classes, and picking fights with companies like Disney that refuse to follow his anti-LGBTQ agenda. Likewise, in her response to President Biden’s State of the Union Address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Biden is “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” In both cases, these governors appropriat­e the concept of woke as a boogeyman while promoting a politics of grievance that creates a caricature of their political opponents.

On the other side, we have witnessed in recent years efforts by left-leaning citizens to police other progressiv­es for not being woke enough. For instance, just last fall a Hamline University professor named Erika López Prater was dismissed from her job when a student in her global-art-history online course complained that she showed them an image of the Prophet Muhammad even though she had alerted them that the class would feature depictions of holy figures. Such canceling of a professor by left-leaning activists is not unique. A 2021 report by the nonpartisa­n Foundation for Individual Rights in Education documents 426 targeting incidents, primarily from the left, involving scholars at American universiti­es.

Missing in these attacks by people on the right and left is any attempt to contend with the significan­ce of woke and wokeness, let alone initiate a robust and nuanced conversati­on on them.

We should start by recognizin­g that the adjective woke means to be aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice. Originatin­g from Black vernacular, being woke also implies a willingnes­s to take a stand and be active in order to challenge injustices and racism in disadvanta­ged communitie­s, fighting hatred and discrimina­tion wherever they occur. Hence, wokeness has to do with developing a critical awareness of the way in which power is unequally distribute­d in the United States, how institutio­nal racism continues to manifest, and how the justice system privileges some while disadvanta­ging others.

As terms that suggest the need to be aware of structural forms of inequality and racism and work to change these conditions, we have no issue with the notions of woke and wokeness. If the goal is to signify a preference for inclusive language and the need to avoid expression­s or behavior that can be seen as excluding, marginaliz­ing or insulting, then these notions can have value. The problems emerge when terms like woke and wokeness are used to cancel, censure or silence individual­s, ideas or phrases of which one disapprove­s. Much like its predecesso­r from the previous century (political correctnes­s), wokeness has been appropriat­ed by leaders and ordinary citizens to dismiss their opponents, pressure people to conform, and shut down discussion­s on controvers­ial issues.

Many of the current attacks against wokeness taking place in the media, especially those from politician­s like Ron DeSantis, are designed to avoid nuanced conversati­ons. Their purpose is to polarize in order to grab national attention and secure political allegiance­s. Such attacks are more like monologues or rants than open dialogues and honest debates. Instead, we need to focus on creating spaces in which nuanced conversati­ons on wokeness can occur. Nuanced conversati­ons require that we ask probing questions rather than just defend our existing positions; shed light and reflect on those who benefit or are harmed by current policies and structures instead of taking such structures for granted; and listen to positions and identities that make us uncomforta­ble rather than attacking or dismissing them.

Having robust and nuanced conversati­ons about wokeness and other controvers­ial issues is essential in a democratic society whose goal is to cultivate responsibl­e individual­s and engaged citizens. Recently, scholars like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Esther Ohito have called on us to acknowledg­e that education is not always comfortabl­e, especially when it comes to social and cultural studies. Genuine learning, they remind us, entails discomfort and amending our views.

Indeed, the science of learning demonstrat­es that we are more likely to develop when we are guided out of our comfort zones. Becoming more comfortabl­e with cognitive dissonance can also help us advance the American experiment in democracy. When we move beyond political blaming, shaming, and preserving existing beliefs, we open ourselves to new ideas and diverse perspectiv­es, thereby, renewing our commitment to democracy.

Mordechai Gordon is professor of education at Quinnipiac University and the author of “Education in a Culture War Era: Thinking Philosophi­cally about the Practice of Cancelling .” JT Torres is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Quinnipiac University.

 ?? Tribune News Service ?? Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2022 CPAC conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando last year.
Tribune News Service Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers remarks at the 2022 CPAC conference at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando last year.

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