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The Universal N-Word

The Left wants to turn the word "woke" into a slur—and suppress all criticism of left-wing racialism.

For the last few weeks, there’s been a spirited debate about the word “woke.” You’ve probably seen some of the headlines and surface-level commentary. But I’d like to go deeper and show how this fight over language reveals some significant undercurrents and explicates the relationship between language, ideology, and power.

The first attack from the Left was that the right can’t define the word “woke.” You see this very pedantic tactic all the time. It’s almost a meme at this point: “Define this. Define that.” It’s a debater’s tactic that is clever and appropriate in high school, but unfortunately, has metastasized upwards where it has become a part of our mainstream adult political debate—and, of course, in this particular instance, it’s ridiculous.

Of course we can define “woke.” We can define it as “left-wing racialist ideology.” We can define it as the attempt to achieve “critical consciousness,” which is a neo-Marxist term, meaning awakening the subject to his own oppression, then recruiting him into left-wing revolution. Or, if we use it as a stand-in for an ideology such as critical race theory, it simply means that “the United States is an oppressor nation that divides classes along the lines of race and then endorses active discrimination in order to create racial equity or equality of group outcomes.”

In a certain sense, it might be difficult for the average person to define in the same way that many abstract words are difficult to define but easy to use in practice. I think it was Wittgenstein who once said that defining the word “game” is very difficult, but everyone knows how to play a game because we use language to participate in a community. We use language as a form of communication even if we don’t have a rigorous or scientific verbal definition for the words that we use.

But there is a second phase in this campaign against the word “woke” that is even more significant. The left-wing black commentator Touré made the argument that actually “woke” is a racial slur. He said: “At this point, woke is a slur. The way the right uses it is an undercover way of saying ‘those people,’ or ‘non-white people.’ It’s a polite way of saying the n-word but in this case the n-word includes Blacks, LGBTQ folks, and other marginalized groups.” So he’s saying that “woke,” in a sense, is a dog whistle for people who can no longer say the n-word out loud—they use “woke” as a substitute word.

But then, a little bit later, he also writes: “Woke is essentially saying be respectful to people who aren’t like you. Don’t be transphobic, don’t be ableist, don’t be racist in your deeds or your language. Make space for marginalized people. Be aware of the needs of others even if you don’t understand their journey.” So this is the very soft, euphemistic left-wing version of “woke.” And so we’re holding these two things in our heads simultaneously: Touré and a number of other commentators would like us to believe that “woke” is a racial slur while, at the same time, “woke” simply means kindness.

An Ideology That Has No Name

What does this all mean? How can we interpret this? How can we look at this double meaning in a way that makes sense?

First, we should say that this is ridiculous on its face. “Woke” does not mean the n-word and the n-word does not apply to LGBTQ people, no matter how convenient that might be for left-wing ideologues. But beyond the ridiculous surface nature of this, which was widely mocked and little accepted, there’s a deeper game that’s happening. There’s a deeper maneuver with language that I think is important to unpack.

So you can look at this with a very basic, three-part semiotic analysis. First, you have the signifier: the actual word “woke.” That’s quite simple. That’s what we’re talking about. Second, what is it referring to? What is the signified? And in this case, you have a double signifier: it’s either the universal evil, the n-word, or it’s the universal good—kindness, love, and justice. And, in total, the signifier and the signified as they come into a meaning, as the meaning is used in our society, you find that that the sign, that total meaning, is always shifting. It’s always contingent. It always depends on who is saying the word, who is listening to the word. It depends on the political context. This is, of course, common in language. But ultimately what it really depends on—and what the Left’s ideology as a whole depends on—is the who-whom distinction. And so, if a left-wing activist says “woke,” it means kindness, love, and justice. If a left-wing activist says “woke” among his own compatriots or comrades, it can also mean awakening to critical consciousness, abolishing the police, enacting a left-wing revolution, going out into the streets.

But then, the defensive maneuver: As the Right has taken the word and used it as a signifier for left-wing racialist ideology, which is deeply unpopular with Americans of all racial backgrounds, it’s taken on this other meaning. It’s taken on a tone of mockery. It’s taken on a tone of critique. And it’s identified the ideology with a single simple memorable word that, for most people, now means outrageous racialist discrimination, resegregating institutions on the basis of critical race ideology, and embedding “diversity, equity, and inclusion” style programs with the goal of redistribution and overturning the basic American principles of freedom and equality.

And so this is where the transposition, or the substitution, comes in. They are saying that “woke” is a racial slur, “woke” is used in lieu of the n-word, which can’t be used in polite company. What are they trying to do here? Well, as we’ve seen often with many words that start on the Left and then get degraded as they become popular and people understand actually what they mean, they’re trying to play it both ways. And what they’re really trying to do is prohibit any signifier for left-wing racialism. They’re saying: “We have an ideology, but you can’t call it ‘woke.’” They’re trying to poison the idea with an association with a horrible slur, the n-word—which again, shouldn’t be used in public by anyone—and attempting to say that these are substitute words, and therefore, they are taking the word “woke” off the table. They’re creating a taboo.

This is not just the word “woke,” of course. We can’t say “race Marxism,” which is supposedly a conspiracy theory or red-baiting. We can’t call it “critical race theory,” because, as we started to use that term—accurately—they said that critical race theory doesn’t exist. So we can’t use that as a signifier for their ideology, either. And so, what are we left with? We’re left with an ideology without a name. You’re left with a philosophy without a signifier. And it’s gotten to the point where even a left-wing commentator such as Freddie deBoer writes an article with the title, “Please Just Fucking Tell Me What Term I Am Allowed to Use for the Sweeping Social and Political Changes You Demand.” There is a frustration, a sense that everyone knows something is happening—we see the phenomenon, we see the signified, we want to have a shared meaning, we want to have a shared sign that we can start to grapple with—but they’re refusing to allow us to call it anything.

The Creation of a Universal Taboo

The step is to extend this concept to other parts of the language. When you extend social taboos, when you deploy an atomic bomb of racial epithets such as the n-word, and you try to associate it with other words, it can be very powerful. And so, after this initial idea from Touré, Damon Young at the Washington Post tries to extend this and conquer different words that should no longer be used.

In a piece titled “Woke is now a dog whistle for Black. What’s next?,” Young says explicitly that he wants to take many other words and categorize them as a dog whistle for black and, by extension, a dog whistle for the n-word. What does this include? Terms like “urban,” “inner city,” “at-risk,” “underserved,” “low-income,” “Chicago,” “socialists,” “critical race theory,” and “anti-American.” So if you’re conservative, according to the Washington Post, you’re not even allowed to say the word “Chicago,” even if, of course, we know that Chicago exists. Chicago is a real thing. Chicago is a city in the Midwest. It has its own seal, it has its own government. No one can deny that Chicago exists, but they’re saying that if a conservative says “Chicago,” he is using “Chicago” as a substitute for the n-word.

This is a form of linguistic nominalism—they’re denying the existence of abstract categories like “woke”—but it also goes further. They’re giving a sense of magical powers, or magical properties, to language. They’re saying, “If you name something, it becomes a reality.” And conversely, “If you prevent the act of naming something, the underlying concept doesn’t exist at all.” And they would love a world in which they can operate ideologically, using their own terms within their own community, and then make all of those terms disappear as soon as it exits their own group, as soon as they might be used as a form of criticism.

And so, by arguing that “woke” is a dog whistle for the n-word, they’re creating a technique that can be applied to any critique of their ideology at all. They can vacuum in any potential signifiers that could be used to construct a critique—even their own words, even their own direct phrases, even if you quote them verbatim—to say, “We’re going to pass this through this great mechanism to create what would be a universal n-word.” They can turn any descriptor into a taboo. That’s the linguistic machine that they’re trying to build. And let’s be clear, once again: the n-word has an ugly history. It should be a taboo. But what they’re doing here is hijacking the moral sentiment and the moral outrage around the n-word and applying it indiscriminately to legitimate critiques of their ideology and seeking to turn normal discourse into a forbidden discourse.

They’re devaluing the rightful taboo on the n-word and conflating it with a whole series of normal terms. In practice, they’re destroying a well-deserved moral agreement. Virtually nobody in the United States thinks that using the full form of the n-word is okay. This is good. This is a form of progress. We all agree on this, but they’re consciously degrading it, much in the same way that they degraded words such as “racist,” “white supremacist,” and “fascist.” And this movement toward creating a “universal n-word” is the end of the line. It is the most taboo word in the English language, certainly in the American context. And they’ve used up the power surrounding the other words—”racist,” “white supremacist,” “fascist”—and this is really the final word.

The Endgame Is Speech Suppression

What are they actually trying to do with the dog whistle maneuver and the universalization of the n-word? The ultimate goal is speech suppression.

If you look at the critical race theorists and a book called Words That Wound, they directly make the case for curtailing the freedoms of the First Amendment and making “harmful” speech illegal, punishable by law. And if you read another book by the critical race theorists, Key Writings That Formed The Movement, they ask the question, what should be the standard of something that is “offensive” or “harmful” speech? And they say very clearly, if a person of color, or, in the specific illustration, if a black woman is offended, then the speech is by definition offensive—a total subjective notion that takes into account “positionality.”

Of course, this is rife for abuse. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that if the standard is “I am offended, therefore this language is racist,” and racist language is illegal, you can see the categorization of language extending further and further, and you can see that the point of control of language is only the departure point for the eventual destination of control of law as a whole. And even if this seems somewhat ridiculous or implausible now, we’ve seen the incursions into freedom of speech accelerate over the past five to ten years, to the point where things that seemed ridiculous five years ago are now the status quo. And so, you should watch this process over time to see how it might be operationalized.

But there is an upside, too. By trying to forbid even naming their ideology, the Left has made a tacit, or implicit, admission of weakness. They don’t want to defend their ideology on its merits. They don’t want to defend their political movement out in the open. They want to hide it. They want to shame people. They want to shut down open discourse because they know that their ideology is fundamentally weak and would have little public support if it were subject to rational debate. And so, we have to oppose this without reservation. We have to attack this head-on. We have to be fearless. We can’t submit to these incursions on language, even when they’re trying to use highly-charged words that are really dangerous to even discuss in public. We have to know that we are on the moral high ground. We are on the political high ground. We are on the linguistic high ground. And we’re not scared to talk about these things directly, to subject them to rational critique.

We have to tell people such as Touré and Damon Young that we’re not afraid to have this debate. We’re not going to let you degrade the meaning of these words, and we’re not going to let you turn them into cheap political weapons to advance your ideology that has nothing to offer for anyone of any racial background. We know what “woke” means. We know the ideology it represents. And we’re going to fight it with everything we have.

Christopher F. Rufo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.

Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo