Google describes “woke” as “an awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice . . .” There's certainly nothing wrong with that. I was blessed with such an awareness early in life, and I'm proud of it. It's much more complicated than that now. Being aware of such issues, and being firmly and verbally on the right side of such issues as they arise, is no longer enough. Many artificial issues have been promoted beyond their worth to society. The requirements of woke culture now constitute a list of do's and don'ts at least twice as long as the official Rules of Baseball.
I would pass along the origins of the term, “woke,” but that would put me at odds with woke culture PDQ. The Woke Police are hyper-vigilant, and you're probably violating their rules just by reading this.
I was triggered to write this post by noticing an article on the Huffington Post site this morning (May 1st). The article was a nice shout out about the actress, Holland Taylor, titled, “The 77-year-old actor's career is brighter than ever . . .” Not immediately recognizing the name, I assumed that Holland was a man. Most people named Holland are men.
Ms. Taylor is a familiar face to anyone who regularly watches television. She has 120 acting credits on IMDB (mostly TV, but a lot of very good TV). I originally encountered her on the soap-opera All My Children in 1982; she was also the Harper boys' mother on Two and a Half Men. Holland Taylor's pronouns are her and she. She is referred to as an actress on her Wiki page and on IMDB, and is described as one of three daughters in her birth family. The use of the term, “actor” in the title probably originated with either the author of the article or the woke policy of the web-site.
“An awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice . . .” is a noble thing, and one of the hallmarks of a good person. It is good to pay attention to these things, but carefully restructuring the language to make all nouns gender-neutral seems like an odd priority. Do we want to do this before we reduce the incidence of spousal and child abuse? Actress, aviatrix, stewardess, waitress, these are all words in various stages of abandonment. Language changes over time, usually in the direction of simplicity. Woke culture notwithstanding, I do not believe that women gain from rushing that process along. Nor do women profit if we think that anyone who refers to Meryl Streep as an actress should become a pariah.
Fire-fighter, letter carrier, and police officer, those are easy enough to understand in a world where these jobs have been open to women for almost fifty years. Those jobs only became available to women at that time. One of my own high school friends was the first, or one of the first, woman fire-fighters in New York City, and another became an early female police officer. Women have been actresses for a long time. Not as long as men, but more than a thousand years longer than women have been “firemen.” The term aviatrix died a well-deserved death in the 1930s. Today, if you described someone as a “great actor” most people would think that you were referring to a man. That remains the common usage of the word, “actor.” No one seems to be in a hurry to discard all of the “female” categories in the Oscars ceremony. Best actor, and just lump everyone in there together? Happening soon? I could be wrong, but I don't think so. I don't think that the actresses would stand for it.
In many languages, all nouns describing tasks are gender-specific. German, for instance. A male teacher is a Lehrer, and a female teacher is a Lehrerin, und so weiter. I am not aware of a movement in Germany to discontinue this practice. There could be, but I doubt it. The Germans are justifiably proud of their language, and I believe they are ill disposed to start tinkering with it. (A discussion of the arbitrary assignment of gender to all German nouns, masculine, feminine, or neuter, is beyond the scope of this post. Take my word for it, it is often arbitrary and it gets nuts in a hurry.)
Woke culture is very involved with finding clever new terms for sexual identities, and also with discovering a much wider variety of sexual, or gender, identities. These may or may not have anything to do with anyone's preference in the arena of sexual practices. It can be hard to follow.
Most people understand that you do not have to be a man to love women, and that not all people who love women are men. And vice-versa. That part is very easy to understand. The only social justice that is required here is to accept the fact that some people prefer the company of members of their own sex, and if they do it is none of our business. This seems obvious now but it upset a lot of people not that long ago, and off-and-on again throughout history.
A vocabulary to describe many aspects of this behavior has been in place for over one hundred years. Men who sought comfort from men were homosexuals. Women who sought comfort from women were also homosexuals, but specifically they were lesbians. “Queer” was a rude, informal word for homosexuals. Individuals who got a kick out of dressing the part of the opposite sex were transvestites. Transvestites may or may not have been homosexuals. In the case of men, most often not. Transvestites were also considered to be queer, homosexual or not. People who went so far as to seek surgical sex reassignment were transsexuals, or transgender individuals. (The Christine Jorgensen case in 1952 got a lot of attention.) That small vocabulary was sufficient, probably because the whole scene had been driven underground and these phenomena were little studied.
Gay was an early alteration of this system, and of the language itself. To be homosexual became “to be gay” around the early 1970s, I believe. (Late 1960s?) I have always assumed that it was due to the famous fondness that male homosexuals have for old MGM musicals, like The Gay Caballero. To be gay meant, until that rebranding, to be happy and carefree. Very few would dare to use it in that context now.
Around the same time, bisexuality became recognized. Theretofore anyone who had sexual congress with members of their own sex as well as the opposite sex was just a homosexual. (Scientists might have called them “pansexuals.”)
Even quite recently, LGBT covered all of the bases. (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual.) That has been modified to the more modern LGBTQ, or even LGBTQIA plus Non-Binary. Now we're down the rabbit hole. Gender fluidity has achieved critical mass, and now anyone is free to design and declare any gender description that appeals to them. All of this has happened very quickly.
Queer now means anyone who is not heterosexual or not cisgender. Is that one new to you? You are not alone. “Cisgender” means that your gender identity matches your gender as assigned by the hospital at birth. Note that cisgender people may be heterosexual or homosexual. Cisgender gives rise to cissexism and cisnormativity
Cissexism: the belief that the gender identity, etc., of “cis” people is more natural and legitimate than the gender identity of trans people.
Cisnormativity: the belief that those born “men” will naturally grow up to be men, etc. This is also problematic in woke culture.
Transsexual and transgender have separated in meaning.
Transsexual: people who have a clear birth identity as one sex who have a strong feeling that they actually belong to the other sex. They must wish to surgically transition to other-sex physically, or else they are merely:
Transgender . . . dressing up and acting like the opposite sex while retaining all of the physicality that they were born with.
“Non-binary” means any individual who rejects the entire concept of gender. They may be heterosexual or homosexual, or bisexual, but they chose to present as gender-neutral in dress and personal grooming. They affect a “choice” of pronouns, often “they” and “their,” and also a choice of honorific, frequently the gender-neutral “Mx.”
Where have the transvestites gone? They are still with us, but the term, “Transvestite” is no longer polite. Now we must refer to them as “cross-dressers.” I'm pretty sure that “female impersonator” is also out.
As far as I know, there is no vocabulary to use to identify which people in this matrix are interested specifically in sexual behavior with either one sex or another. I'm sure that additional required vocabulary is coming soon. In this way, the number of possibilities becomes almost infinite. My attitude remains, go ahead and live your life. I believe that substantive due process allows you to live any of the lives described herein. But don't publish a handbook called “Fifty Shades of Trans” and expect the legislatures to mandate its universal use in ordinary conversation. Also, if one is a man who has been molded by doctors and female hormones into a simulacrum of a woman, but who still prefers to have sex with women, do we really need a new word whose meaning encompasses all of those details? Probably not, but I'm expecting one any minute.
I am surprised that there is not an ongoing protest against the words “wo-MAN” and “MAN-kind.”
Honestly, don't we have bigger fish to fry? Humanity itself is facing multiple existential crises; the world's democracies are under attack, and are losing ground; the American legal system has become untethered from Constitutional guidelines; failed states are multiplying like bunnies. I suggest that we are fiddling with minutia while the house burns down.
The racial aspects of “woke” also seem to place the cart before the horse. It is easy to see the offensiveness of having a cartoon American Indian* as the logo or mascot of a sports team, and we can all agree that the time is past for that kind of nonsense.** But there was a recent example of overdoing this clean-up program. Land-O-Lakes butter has always featured an American Indian woman on their box. I'm certain that it was part of their trademarked logo. No special attention was aimed at this inclusion, and there was nothing disrespectful about the artwork. Yet last week she suddenly disappeared from the box. This is a perfect example of misplaced priorities. American Indians to this day live with a huge catalog of honest grievances against the United States. These include matters economic, political, and legal. They are still subject to very serious discrimination, neglect, and abuse. For that matter, they are still subject to negative visual portrayals in many formats that should be addressed. The respectful portrayal of an American Indian woman on the box of a product called “Land-O-Lakes” seems fitting when you consider that the Land of Lakes, which is the multi-state area around the Black Hills, is the ancestral homeland of the Lakota Sioux nation of American Indians.
Society changes; language changes; cultures change. That is all okay with me. I'm not one of those geezers who finds fault with the modern world in all of its details. Maybe all of this is important, but my point is that accomplishing anything important requires prioritization of the tasks at hand. We learned that in law school. People don't realize it, but the emphasis in law school was on teaching us a method for handling complex intellectual problems. The above described problems of social justice and racism are both complex and intellectual. You cannot simply start with the low hanging fruit. If your goal is social justice and equality for all of us, you cannot start by focusing on vocabulary or on minuscule subgroups of society. If your goal is to better educate American Indian children, you cannot start with demanding the removal of that lovely American Indian woman from the butter box.
No, you must analyze the problem and break it down into bite-sized pieces. You must decide very carefully what is very important, what is somewhat important, and what can wait. What are the threshold issues, the ones that must be tackled first. The ones the solution of which may automatically solve or eliminate other problems down the line. You must have an overview, a master plan. Then you tackle the pieces in order of importance, according to the plan.
Would you rather insist on being referred to as “Mx.,” insisting on your non-binary pronouns, or would you prefer to achieve greater freedom and acceptance of anyone whose natural path in the world is atypical in some way? Isn't the most important thing the complete acceptance of the wide range of normality in humanity? I would include all of the above sub-groups, plus people who are autistic, people who are not physically attractive, everybody. I would love to see a strengthening of our Constitutional rights, and a return to a system where our votes meant something. I would love to see the reversal of the current trend which disenfranchises so many voters because of race, religion, criminal history, poverty, or national origin. Would you rather have that inoffensive American Indian woman removed from the butter box, or see American Indian people elevated to a place of equality and respect in our society?
Woke? Let's start with wake the fuck up. We need to get our priorities straight.
*American Indian. I could not say what the preferred woke term is for the people that Columbus found when he stumbled upon the New World. I can, however, tell you that the Indians themselves have rejected “Native Americans.” That term had already achieved dubious utility in the 19th Century, when it came to mean “the Protestant white people,” as opposed to those damn Catholic immigrants. Our present day white supremacists have further sullied the term.
What's left? “First Nations” and “indigenous people” are popular in Canada, but to the best of my knowledge, American Indians have to some extent decided on “American Indians.” Just smile and be respectful, and that should be fine.
**Incidentally, I haven't noticed anyone complaining about Lucky Charms cereal. Leprechauns indeed! As usual, Irish Americans are expected to accept this kind of thing with a smile. (See luckycharms.com) The Paddy Wagon; hooligans. And we do smile through it. Do you know why? Because it is unimportant compared to the desire to be accepted as American citizens with full economic and political rights. That was a struggle of hundreds of years, and hard fought. Give us full equality and then you can go ahead and call us Harps, you bloody fools!