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‘PC gone mad’ guy is driving me bonkers

According to an article in Vox, the term “stay woke” may have first been used by black American blues singer Huddie Ledbetter in 1938. But the concept of being awake to social injustice and systemic racism was being propounded well before that. For the next several decades, the word and the idea at its heart − that it was essential to remain alert to the truth and not swallow the institutional line − was used in the world of black activism and community organising.

Writing for Splinter, Charles Pulliam-Moore put together an excellent timeline for woke’s movement into the mainstream. The chronology begins in 2008 when “stay woke” was used in a song by Erykah Badu and ends in 2016 when it descended into irony. He wrote, “a phrase that was meant to encourage critical thinking about social issues and injustices, has slowly morphed into something that occasionally comes across as a derogatory jab at the very idea of staying ‘woke’.”

Its use has changed again since Pulliam-Moore wrote that. Where in 2016 those who used “woke” derisively were generally mocking misguided or flat-out pathetic attempts at “sensitivity”, now – as you’ve found out at work – some people use it as a straight term of abuse. To them, being “woke” is a bad thing in and of itself.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

Why is the origin of a word’s meaning important? Well, to answer that I want to discuss another word that’s in popular use today: “disruption”. Although in many ways it’s a million miles from “woke”, there are similarities in the way its use has evolved: its specific meaning was coined decades ago, it grew in popularity, became mainstream and began to be used in a way at odds with the way its originators intended.

Clayton Christensen, who used “disruptive technologies” in a mid-’90s Harvard Business Review article to describe those innovations that at first seem smaller, cheaper and inferior in certain respects than an existing technology. They “disrupt” because they find a niche, improve quickly and are eventually considered to have far more utility than their once-dominant, now-cumbersome predecessors.

In 2021, though, very few of us use “disrupt” in the way Christensen did in 1995. He wrote in 2015 that “the theory’s core concepts have been widely misunderstood and its basic tenets frequently misapplied”.

Christensen doesn’t own the word “disrupt” or any of its variants, but he came up with a definition that people loved and he makes a compelling point when he says “Many… use ‘disruptive innovation’ to describe any situation in which an industry is shaken up and previously successful incumbents stumble. But that’s much too broad a usage.”

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He’s identified a very similar problem to the one you have with your colleague’s use of “woke”. When you become what Christensen describes as “sloppy” in your labelling, a word’s meaning goes from very particular to hopelessly nebulous. It becomes nothing more than a fashionable synonym: in the case of “disruption” for “major breakthrough” or “significant change”; and in the case of “woke” for “politically correct” or, as you say in your email, “progressive” in any way.

Christensen saw another problem, closely related to the first, as well: “Too frequently, [people] use the term loosely to invoke the concept of innovation in support of whatever it is they wish to do.”

When the meaning of a word becomes so fuzzy that people feel comfortable ascribing to it whatever interpretation suits them in the moment, that word loses all rhetorical force.

Perhaps your demanding co-worker thinks he’s being exceptionally clever, and devastatingly cutting, with his use of “woke”. In fact, it sounds like he’s yet another person contributing to its fall into the realm of the vapid.

Work Therapy is available to everyone. Send your question through to jonathan@theinkbureau.com.au

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