Wake up, the woke revolution is here!
The confessions of a man coping with the demands of a newly minted vocabulary
I am a very confused man these days. My mental disarray stems from this new woke culture being thrust upon us by a society gone berserk. Its latest manifestation is a handbook of guidelines issued by Oxfam, stipulating for its employees a whole new terminology in order to respect social, racial and gender ‘sensitivities’.
Take just one example. For the last 72 years, I have held the belief that I was born as a male child (even though the good wife might have had a few doubts about that occasionally); the last time I looked, the evidence also pointed in that direction. But Oxfam has now put a huge question mark on that: it says that it would be more correct to say that I am AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth); my sister is AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth). The reason: no one should presume someone’s sex, for he/ she/ they may change their mind at any later stage, and prefer to be a transgender!
I wonder what my mom and dad would have thought of that. Actually, I’m also out of line in referring to them as mother and father—Oxfam says I should refer to them only as “parent/s” since we have no business assigning gender roles to anyone. The mother may decide to be the father and vice versa! Is it any wonder that kids go around these days with a vacant look on their faces?
My elder son is not getting married just yet because he is still trying to figure out which gender he belongs to, though he was AMAB.
I’m afraid the Book of Genesis may have to be rewritten very soon if this goes on much longer. In those non-woke days, God created just two sexes or genders—male and female—and asked them to go forth and multiply, which they have since done with remarkable success, considering that we are now topping five or six billion soulless souls. (There may be a slight reduction in the figures now that the BJP’s emphasis is more on divide than multiply).
But the good Lord himself had got it all wrong, we are now told, because there are 15 genders forms, not two. Other than the old fashioned male and female, the others include cisgender, transgender, calcigender, non-binary, etc. among others. It’s little wonder that my son can’t decide who to get married to. It’s a problem of plenty, if you ask me. In my time one married either a boy or a girl; now one needs AI or ChatGPT to figure it out.
This woke movement started sometime around 2010 and was meant to create an awareness and response to social inequalities, racism, sexism, slavery, white supremacy, discrimination and other social injustices. This was certainly a laudable objective; two of its manifestations have been the Black Lives Matter and the MeToo crusades. In recognition of this, the Oxford English Dictionary even added ‘woke’ to its inventory of words in 2017. But one can’t help but feel that in trying to change the Queen’s English to the drag queen’s English, these reformers may be stepping beyond their remit and intruding into the realm of the ridiculous.
Take, for example, what used to be called ‘lack of self-confidence’. It’s not so simple, folks: the condition is now linked to your ‘sexual identity’ (whatever that means) and has been given all kinds of names—gender dysphoria, transphobia, transmisia, and so on. Conversely, if you happen to feel good some morning, it’s not because the BJP lost in Himachal or you have finally found Sunny Leone’s phone number, it’s because you have gender euphoria. Is it necessary to link everything to, or explain everything in terms of, sex or gender?
It’s a language thing, you know. What worries me is not the robust response to the inequities and prejudices that the woke generation is mounting: that is welcome and perhaps more than overdue. But as a student of literature (Entire English Literature, in current parlance), I am completely flummoxed by how the English language is being changed to suit the woke lexicon. Language will always reflect the prevalent values and principles of society, but it should not become hypocritical, biased or evasive of the truth, as George Carlin had explained in one of his videos about ‘politically correct’ language.
Here are a few examples from the woke lexicon, make of them what you will: heteronormativity (presumed to be straight unless proved to be otherwise [in an adaptation, presumably, of the legal principle of presumed to be innocent unless proven otherwise); nonsumer (a minimalist consumer); greenwash (cheating on environmental brownie points), white feminism (calling out people who espouse feminism but stay mum on issues that affect the less privileged women); slut shame, toxic masculinity, Madonna/ whore complex, queer baiting, pansexual, gaslighting (emotional abuse—abuser undermining victim’s perceptions and abilities by constant peddling of untruths).
Conversely, some words are a no-no because they convey prejudiced ideologies or misogynistic mindsets: headquarters (colonialist), prostitute (looking down on a legitimate profession), sanitary products (implying unclean), expectant mother (should be gender neutral, as in ‘people who become pregnant’), ethnic minority (fails to convey the complexity of ethnicity), and so on.
Are we re-writing the English language in the light of our own, current prejudices? In this reformist zeal, are we not imposing a new gender ideology in place of the old one (at least the older one was easier to understand)? Does anything change substantially by merely replacing one word or phrase with another? Can semantics themselves eradicate long held prejudices?
While these questions occur to me I am also conscious of the fact that perhaps I’m now too old to appreciate the dynamics of cultural evolution that are at play here, or that my dad forgot to tell me that I was ABDAB (Assumed Brain Dead at Birth). It took the UPSC to confirm this when I was selected for the IAS in 1975.
Maybe all this Wokeism is just the new political correctness in changing times. In which case, I can’t but recollect the words of former US President Harry Truman: “Political correctness holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end.” Is this, then, a case of the ends justifying the mean(ing)s?
AVAY SHUKLA is a retired IAS officer. Views are personal