Saturday, December 19, 2020

Wokese: "The Language of Privilege"

 From Tablet Magazine:

As a language, wokeness is self-consciously engineered to be easier to exploit and use to bully your way to the top if you are a member of a “marginalized group” (to use woke parlance). That is, in a community where everyone speaks wokese, the intention is that a trans woman of color will have her ideas advanced and her enemies thwarted, and will generally be advantaged by the milieu she finds herself within, because that is how the rules are structured.
Is this a good or a bad thing about wokese? Perhaps you object to this kind of linguistic social engineering because any whiffs of newspeak creep you out. Perhaps not. Perhaps you think that trans women of color need a boost, to remediate past and present wrongs against them as individuals or as members of a self-assigned or externally assigned or actually existing collective. 
That’s all fine. But let’s put deliberation about the goodness or badness of using language to advance historically marginalized people aside for a moment, because it is downstream of the question of whether wokese actually really does help those people it says it intends to help—or whether it mainly helps some other class of people.
Instead, let’s ask: Who does the woke playing field, as expressed through wokese, actually advantage? As a barrier to entry that is manufactured in universities, mediated by elite institutions and bureaucracies, and is intentionally complex and constantly changing, wokese is a tool that is most easily wielded by the credentialed elite—which suggests that the allegedly vulnerable cohorts in whose name this language is allegedly spoken are actually being used by others as rhetorical camouflage.
In reality, wokeness is a bourgeois sop to self-dealing millionaires. Why? Because those who already have the most resources and power are best positioned to game whatever new system comes about by throwing up obstacles that take training and money to navigate or overcome effectively. In fact, for them, the more obstacles in the course of advancement in any given field, the better. Working people with only a little bit of brainspace in their lives leftover from just making it all work can’t expend nearly as much energy figuring out how to navigate the mazes presented by fast-changing social norms and bureaucratic rituals. Having to learn and then constantly relearn a whole new language just to get along in college or navigate a workplace is an intolerable burden, which sifts them out.
The question at hand in an age where wokeness—i.e., the demand to speak wokese—dominates the institutions where you can go to rise in your social class in America is a much more practical question than whether it is morally just or unjust to create a system which advantages contemporary members of historically marginalized communities if it is possible to, or whether sins are committed by groups and are in fact heritable. Those are philosophical abstractions. The salient question is the same one that Melinda Gates pointed to when she highlighted the issue of “women’s time poverty” as the biggest barrier to women’s rights and equity—meaning, that a woman who spends hours a day walking back and forth from the stream with a bucket probably isn’t going to have as many opportunities to educate and enrich herself as one who can turn on the faucet at the kitchen sink or as the male of the household who she brings water to. It is the same question that would be raised if a school required its applicants to know Latin, as the good colleges once did.
So, in the end, the question raised by wokeness is a simple one: Doesn’t it actually just favor rich people?
Jacques Barzun makes a prediction near the end of his magisterial From Dawn to Decadence that I think about a lot:
Establishing a standard spelling abolished the old democratic right to follow one’s fancy, and the result is that we can still read with relative ease the literature of the last 500 years. During that same time, the vocabulary has suffered losses and changes, the increase in distinctions being much to the good; while the losses and confusions, many due to ignorance in a world of illiterates, were not then cheered along by specialists. The present order of things is not likely to keep the written word readable for another five centuries.
Because I live in Brooklyn, work in journalism, went to private school and a reasonably fancy college, and am friends primarily with workers in the “information economy,” I can speak fluent wokese. I usually don’t speak it, but I can. I don’t like it, I think it sounds bad, and I choose to use English instead most of the time. But I know perfectly well how to sound if I want to go be a consultant or if I need to go to grad school or if I am in an interview for really any job that pays upward of six figures and is based in a city....