In Toronto, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health notes that their address on Queen Street West was once home to what in 1850 was called the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. In 1905, it was renamed the Hospital for the Insane. And that was probably seen as enlightened.

Such was the language of the day.

Immigration laws from the late 1800s prohibited people determined to be “lunatics” and “idiots” from entering Canada. Those would be people we’d refer to today as having mental health challenges or intellectual/developmental disabilities. But back then, the Ontario Human Rights Commission points out, those individuals were routinely described in society as “morally degenerate” or “feeble minded”.

Actions flow from words. The use of demeaning and degrading terms wasn’t the only reason why these and other groups were erased from society. But that language made it easier to enact exclusionary policies.

The words, phrases, expressions, euphemisms and figures of speech we use around any people or issues all matter. Language both reflects and shapes public discourse. It certainly does around race, ethnicity, cultures, gender, sexuality, ability, disability, age, education, socio-economic status, religion, nationality and other identities.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press stylebook, an authoritative guide for journalists, took some flak when they tweeted this advice. “We recommended avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels,” stated the AP, citing some examples: the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, etc.

They encouraged writers to get away from using generic descriptors for groups of people who just happen to share a certain trait. Including “the French” on the list created a backlash. The French embassy in the U.S. weighed in, jokingly tweeting that they may have to change their name. And one show on Fox News called the AP tweet “woke insanity” – what a surprise.

The AP deleted their tweet and explained in a follow-up tweet that: “We did not intend to offend. But ‘the’ terms for any people…imply a monolith rather than diverse individuals. Be specific when possible and relevant.”

Still, even the liberal-leaning Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times opinion columnist, wrote that “the language wars” can fuel divisions, invite mockery and be performative. Instead of fixating on jargon, Kristof wrote, advocates for change should focus more on advancing policies that address inequities.

Why can’t we do both?

Change and language are related. Some language can stigmatize, stereotype, generalize and offend. Finding replacement words is part of the process of re-framing our perspectives on individuals, groups and societal issues.

You can bet that some of the labels we use today will be seen as the slurs of tomorrow. Because language constantly changes.

“Stay woke” was about vigilance

The term “woke” sure has evolved. It re-emerged with recent social justice campaigns, but has been around for almost a century. Its origins go back to the 1930s, when Black Americans used “stay woke” to mean keeping alert to prejudice and discrimination. Watch out, because there are people out there with bad intentions.

Now, “woke” been co-opted, politicized and weaponized, its definition twisted.

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, guest host Sarah Silverman said that in its more modern meaning “woke is learning new things about people or the world and then acting accordingly, like basic kindness, maybe a gesture of care to people who are more vulnerable than you.”

“Woke” should be a badge of honour, not an insult, if you take it to mean being compassionate and vigilant.

Yet those who push back use “woke” a dismissive umbrella term, said Silverman: “It feels cooler to say ‘I’m not woke!’ than the truth, which is ‘I’m terrified of what I don’t understand and I only know how to process that as anger because I can’t look inward.’”

The anti-woke crowd always thinks the world going to hell. Sometimes, they see that decline in curious spots. Examples from just within the past month:

  • Mars Inc. was reproached for promoting “woke M&M’s” after they introduced an all-female character branded pack (with part of the profits going to group that uplifts and empowers women).
  • Some media outlets said Chick-fil-A was betraying the faith of their customers. Why? For daring to test out breaded cauliflower. The chain was accused of creating a “woke sandwich” and worrying too much about “the vegans” who “already have an option…it’s called sadness.”
  • The Super Bowl a few weeks back triggered the host of one YouTube channel (183,000 subscribers) to call the event “an extravaganza of wokeness”. He was upset that the Navy flyover of the stadium was piloted by an all-female team, and that a hymn of liberation and affirmation called “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, written by a former NAACP leader, was performed on the field prior to the national anthem.
  • Even Barney the purple dinosaur is now suspect. Last week, Mattel announced that they’ll re-launch the children’s show in 2024 in an animated version. The plans prompted an immediate response from some far-right organization (actually an extremist hate group), which tweeted “Barney is returning. They better not make him woke.”

Wondering what sort of fossils would be upset by Barney? Maybe people who didn’t like the comments in the news release from Josh Silverman, global head of consumer products at Mattel, who said “Barney’s message of love and kindness has stood the test of time.” Or these comments from Fred Soulie, general manager of Mattel Television: “In creating the new series, it was important to us that we properly reflect the world that kids today live in so that the series can deliver meaningful lessons about navigating it. With our modern take on Barney, we hope to inspire the next generation to listen, care, and dream big.”

Listen and care – that concept will anger some people every time.

It’s easy to mock what gets the anti-wokesters all riled up. Except that they target our core institutions.

In various pieces of news coverage, Canada’s agriculture sector has been called a victim of a “woke wave” for efforts to reduce fertilizer emissions in order to curb GHGs. Ontario’s school boards have been accused of being woke for spending too much time talking about Indigenous history. Those who want to erode health care call the “woke left” an impediment to “reform” because potential changes might “violate sensibilities about equity”.

All of that is here in Canada. In other parts of North America, things are downright Orwellian. The shelves of school libraries in Florida have been emptied of millions of books because titles are under “review”. That’s due to a series of laws that restrict classroom topics, including the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act – or Stop WOKE Act.

Today, “woke” has become a catch-all synonym with which to ridicule anyone seen as liberal, green, progressive, or politically and socially aware.

The phrase “get woke, go broke” is used to smear businesses that are too “activist”. Some of the companies that have been critiqued: Coca-Cola, for calling out restrictive voting laws in their home state of Georgia; Disney, for having an openly gay character in an animated movie; Amex, for their anti-racism initiatives; Goldman Sachs, for reducing financing for new coal projects; and Walmart, for asking customers not to openly carry firearms into their stores.

That’s not exactly a group of radical companies, but here we are.

As a slight, “woke” has become meaningless. But the intent is clear. The anti-wokesters want to turn back the clock.

This group likes to deride the “snowflakes” who are easily hurt by offensive language, and see tweets like the AP’s as evidence of a high crime. But that’s performative too. The phony outrage we see can obscure another agenda: a fear of change.

The biggest snowflakes of all are those who are threatened by social progress. And many have bad intentions.

Stay woke.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

February 22, 2023

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