What does ‘awake’ mean? It depends on who you ask. For left-wing activists, from the 1930s to today, wake is an emancipatory term that means: keep watch, keep your eyes open for racism in society. To the radical right, woke is a fascistic ideology that silences anyone who is not “politically correct”. And Minister Dilan Yesilgöz (Justice and Security, VVD) also sees ‘awake’ as a threat to the democratic rule of law.
Last Tuesday, Yesilgöz delivered the fourteenth HJ Schoo lecture, an annual lecture by a politician, organized by EW Magazine. It was a little hopeful. Yesilgöz expressed his concerns about the democratic rule of law: subversive drug crime, terrorism and extremism, anti-Semitism, fake news and conspiracy theories. And ‘Wokism’.
The VVD minister defined Wokism as a movement of people “who believe that they are allowed to decide what information or opinion is correct and what is not correct.” […] what is right and what is wrong. […] Which under the guise of inclusion deals only with exclusion. By canceling everything they don’t like.” According to her, the woke culture prevents mutual criticism of the universities, leads to self-censorship and encourages intolerance, “whereas tolerance is precisely the core of the democratic rule of law.”
Her words caused a stir because she mentioned waking up in the same breath as terrorism and conspiracy theories
Her words caused a stir among opinion makers and columnists because Yesilgöz mentioned woke up in the same breath as terrorism and conspiracy theories. And also because she is the Minister of Justice, and identified as a threat to the rule of law.
Yesilgöz’s speech emphasizes that the meaning of the term ‘woke’ is changing from a nickname to a swear word. Until now, it was mainly radical right-wing parties that portrayed the ‘wake’ in a bad light, and there is speculation on social media as to why the VVD is now joining it. Is it an attempt by the middle party to attract voters to the flanks? What Yesilgöz is doing is not new. There is even a (mocking) word for VVD members who proclaim hardline positions to lure voters away from radical right-wing parties: PVV corvee.
The term woken comes from the English verb ‘to wake’ and literally means ‘to wake up’. Linguist Sibo Kanobana told NRC in January that the term “(stay) wake” dates back to the African-American community in the 1930s. At the time and in the decades since, the term did not refer to an ideology, but rather served as a warning: beware, this society is racist.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, the word has become popular. And it went hand in hand with increasing criticism. “Woke has become a term of abuse,” says Kanobana. “It means something like politically correct, hypersensitive grunt.” Woke is used to ridicule a left-wing activist nicknamed ‘snowflake’.
Wake is not an ideology, but it exists as an attitude: trying to see through social structures in search of oppression. Think of the political party BIJ1. Ironically, there is also a far-right minority of conspiracy theorists and corona skeptics who call themselves “awake”.
Is Yesilgöz’s speech an attempt by the middle party VVD to attract voters to the radical right flank?
In the House of Representatives, Rob Jetten (D66), then still a member of Parliament, was the first in 2020 to use the word in its original, emancipatory sense. “The fact that all these Black Lives Matter demonstrations are rousing more and more people is good, but it also deserves to be emulated in our systems, our institutions and in our policies.” In the same year, its radical real meaning was also used in the House. PVV MP Martin Bosma then said the EU’s core task was to ‘impose’ the ‘woke ideology’. In his words, it was “a cocktail of diversity racism, climate socialism and the war on the nation-state.” And in 2021, Bosma mentioned the “awake ideology” again, this time as the ideas of a leftist elite to which the then cabinet belonged, according to him.
Also listen: Our podcast about the term woke up
In September 2021, the ‘wake’ was heavily discussed, mainly by Geert Wilders, who spoke in the House of Representatives about a ‘wake dictatorship’: ‘A suffocating, coercive identity politics reminiscent of the worst totalitarian regimes’. According to the PVV leader, the “awake madness” has also “in the heads of our young children” stopped in the schools. Joost Eerdmans (JA21) also talks about the ‘suffocating awake culture’. And Wybren van Haga compares wake with communism.
After that, ‘wake’ was never mentioned again by left-wing parties in its original meaning.
In May 2022, the VVD also expressed concern about awakening for the first time. VVD MP Hatte van der Wouden put written questions to Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education, D66) in response to Telegraph-article ‘Philosopher warns against wokism: ‘Students call me racist and homophobe”. The VVD MP called it “very worrying” if “educators no longer dare to express themselves freely in an academic environment.”
Flirting with extremes
In his lecture, Yesilgöz now goes even further with the new framework that the radical right has created around the concept of ‘awakened’. Matthijs Rooduijn, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, believes that she did this deliberately. Yesilgöz seems to want to profile himself as a VVD member who is at the same time attractive to people from the political center – by criticizing conspiracy theories and fake news – and voters from a right-wing populist corner.
According to him, it has to do with the changed political landscape. “The end of the Rutte era is approaching. The VVD is losing solidly in the opinion polls, and dissatisfaction with politics is peaking. The party has long been successful because it understands voters from the political center, while at the same time flirting with political extremes.” With this lecture, Yesilgöz wanted to present himself as a politician who can continue this strategy, also after Rutte.