How Woke Became a Weapon

LEANING RIGHT-The sharp uptick in public shaming over the past several years, and specifically since the 2016 election, has sparked a heated discussion about whether the perceived righteousness of the practice overshadows possible damage and likely fallout.

As my initial look into the phenomenon revealed, shame is linked to PTSD, which means it disproportionately affects people who are already suffering from past trauma and stress disorders. Digital shaming can lead to digitally mediated trauma, and the CDC now acknowledges the impact of “electronic aggression” on mental health. 

During my research, a specific subset of public shaming kept cropping up. It had to do with online activism and a word that had recently been added to the dictionary: woke. An increased impetus for offering correctives has arisen around woke” discussions. Online, the term has assumed an association with newfound awareness and enthusiasm for social justice issues at large, even if it is often used derisively. Like plenty of popular American slang, “woke” is a historically Black phrase appropriated for mainstream usage. 

The first traceable use of the word as slang appears in a 1962 article in the New York Times by Black novelist William Melvin Kelley. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” Kelley titled his article, a piece that the Oxford English Dictionary described in its research as focused on “how white beatniks were appropriating black slang at the time.” Decades later, in 2008, Erykah Badu used woke in the song “Master Teacher” on her album New Amerykah. At the time, her use of the phrase “I stay woke” puzzled listeners, but it stuck around and was later popularized by Black Lives Matter and related movements; one even chose StayWoke.org for their website. 

Use of the word reached a fever pitch around 2016. That year, woke was everywhere; its journey from Black activism to meme status was tracked by Splinter, while The Awl published an incisive piece on watching the Woke Olympics unfold (mostly among liberal white people). Even the New York Times covered the strange phenomena of earning the “woke badge.” Oxford defines this new usage: “Well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in ‘stay woke.’” 

In 2018, we live in an era of hypervigilance when it comes to speaking out on issues of social injustice. Eager to signal support for these issues and be seen as helpful allies, newbies to the cause often jump into the deep end, hastily tweeting their thoughts or butting into conversations they know little about. Foot-in-mouth syndrome abounds, and those who have long been fighting these battles often turn on the well-meaning but flawed new supporters, using the full force of their often substantial followings to humiliate them. 

“Woke shaming,” then, is a specific type of public shaming done in the name of social justice, or the practice of calling out those who weigh in on discussions of marginalized groups and participate in movements that target inequalities like racism, sexism, and the nonacceptance of queer/trans identities. These social justice causes could span any number of small in-groups where specific knowledge is key but sparse, public support is trendy, and factors like privilege and oppression are involved. 

Digital shaming is currently most rampant on Twitter, but it can spill into comment sections, Instagram posts, and anywhere else online public statements are being shared widely. The pro-Clinton Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, for instance, faced intensive, over-the-top criticisms that amounted to woke shaming; backlash to the Women’s March on Washington in early 2017 is another prominent example.

Plenty of activists argue that shaming those who err while striving to help build a resistance is a counterintuitive practice. “To organize such a movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated — those who are new to activism and organizing,” writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Black female activist and author of “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” in a piece reflecting on critiques of the history-making Women’s March. “We have to welcome those people and stop the arrogant and moralistic chastising of anyone who is not as ‘woke’… [movements] are built by actual people, with all their political questions, weaknesses, and strengths.” 

Shaming is strongly correlated to the emerging prominence of “call-out culture,” or what writer and historian Shaun Scott defines as the “extremely online practice of denouncing racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic statements on the internet.” As tempestuous call-outs seem to crest new waves every other week, for many, the fear of publicly misspeaking is rivaled perhaps only by the worry that silence will be perceived as a stand-in for complicity. 

And while call-out culture can be positive when it’s about whistleblowing in a community, woke shaming is what happens when it goes past accountability and into unwarranted, targeted harassment. “In many ways, holding each other accountable has come to mean punishing each other,” writes queer activist Maisha Z. Johnson on the often toxic, self-serving nature of call-out culture. “Sometimes it feels like we’re all competing on a hardcore game show, trying to knock each other down to be crowned the movement’s Best Activist.” 

Johnson writes about how this kind of behavior is motivated by fear and pain, a virtue-signaling that loses sight of the goal of social justice, to create a world free from oppressive cycles. “In standing against oppression, we end up replicating the same harmful cycles,” she concludes. 

The clash between well-meaning, if ignorant, new supporters and those who have been acutely aware of injustice their entire lives regularly unfolds online. Marginalized folks, like those within the queer community and people of color, often rightly have a hard time with the newfound trendiness and mainstream focus on these causes, which have been their lived realities all along. 

Woke shaming is markedly different from trolling, and even other forms of public shaming, because it occurs in communities that purport to be united by a shared cause that’s not necessarily part of the mainstream. If you’re shamed in a community that small, the fallout can feel total, or those seeking to join the cause can be deterred from participating further. 

Like Taylor and Johnson, Patrisse Cullors, a queer Black woman and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke about the downfalls of woke shaming in an interview with Complex last year. “Woke shaming is really unfortunate,” Cullors said. “If we are trying to build a movement to save all of us, we need to be able to invoke faith in people who are new, who are learning, and who are willing to grow. There is a difference between people who are bigots and people who are trying to figure out their way in this. We should have patience.” 

Cullors isn’t alone in this stance — many other activists vehemently disagree with the practice of shaming within social justice movements. “There is no value in shame, only ego and belittling,” says Natalie Patterson, a queer Black female poet, teaching artist, and activist and founder of Sister Support. She echoes Cullors’ thoughts on the fruitlessness of shaming. “I think shaming others is really evidence of a lack of leadership and maturity,” Patterson continues. “We all have a place in these conversations because no one is an island. We have to do the emotional self-work so that we are prepared to be peacemakers, not just fire starters.” 

But given the emotional reaction that topics like police violence, sexual assault, and other forms of institutionalized trauma can have on those who are triggered, speaking out, or protesting, that advice isn’t always easy to follow. After all, social media is arguably the first-time marginalized people, including women, queer voices, and people of color, have had space and freedom to express their pent-up rage at injustice. Their trauma is not digital: It’s death, assault, rape, torture, genocide, and more. Who in their right mind could begrudge this historical anger an outlet? 

“I think with the online meanness in exchanges like these, oppressed people can act out trauma on allies who really are just trying to learn and help,” says Alex Ashford, a Black female author, writer, and teacher. “As human beings, this is unfair, and it feels unfair, and I think that’s normal. However, people of color are aware that the very systems we operate under each day are — and always have been — unfair and thus don’t give a fuck about your feelings. We are so traumatized sometimes we don’t have the capacity to care about your feelings.” 

Writing for Wired in 2013, cultural critic Laura Hudson noted that while social media gives a powerful platform to the disenfranchised, it can also become an unregulated “weapon of mass reputation destruction” that is historically more powerful than any of its predecessors. “We despise racism and sexism because they bully the less powerful, but at what point do the shamers become the bullies?” she asked. “Even if you think your bullying is serving a greater good, the fact remains that you’re still just a bully.” 

Hudson clarifies that bullying is earmarked by a power differential — bullies punch down — and when it comes to woke shaming, those doing the shaming often consider themselves to be punching up, or sideways, at maximum. Certainly, there is no blanket agreement across marginalized groups that woke shaming is acceptable, and it’s disingenuous to assume that everyone in activism practices the same behaviors. On the other hand, activists and allies should consider healthy feedback a normal part of the learning process. 

Andi Zeisler, one of the co-founders of Bitch Media, an early feminist media organization founded in 1996, points out that most people make mistakes in activism when they’re first getting started, but she also notes that listening to feedback about those mistakes is a key part of true allyship. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that everyone fucks up in activism, and particularly online,” Zeisler says. “You have people who are at Feminism 101 alongside those who are Feminism PhD. There has to be room for well-meaning people to fuck up and a dynamic that doesn’t ostracize them, but rather makes them realize that shutting up and listening is a great way to learn.” 

Sometimes shaming has more to do with the context of privilege around the person who is speaking out than their behavior itself. Consider the backlash in response to actor Matt McGorry’s bumbling feminist pivot, or the effusive praise John Oliver received for confronting Dustin Hoffman, when he was only doing what many women consider to be the bare minimum by calling out misogyny.

“Challenging men who are clearly performative, speaking in bad faith, or trying to talk over or patronize women can be a good sniff test with regard to their sincerity and willingness to engage,” Zeisler says. “An important thing about being an ally to marginalized people is that it requires giving up something — your comfort, your voice, your perceived authority — in order to give others the platform.” 

But the line gets blurrier considering that online shaming may now come with an ulterior motive of its own: Its performative nature has emerged as an extremely powerful way to build a presence online. Prominent shamers who are able to solicit and obtain apologies or other action from their targets can become beacons for movements, or even earn brand capital, like the now infamous woke dictionary

“When shaming others can bring social capital, that’s when it becomes a pile-on,” says Blake Flournoy, a queer, Black, genderfluid writer and reporter with a background in sex education and psychology. “Often because not piling on can be used as an avenue to be shamed. I know how dangerous digital shaming is, and I’ve seen too many people get traumatized by it. But I do think there is value in using shame to press people to change or own up to their behavior.” 

So, do the shamed deserve what they get for misspeaking, particularly if they’re trying to speak out against injustice? And is shame really an effective tool for shaping behavior? When shamed allies are charged with a failure of wokeness, they’re continually told they should to listen to these criticisms — no matter how callous — as a duty of privilege. “Shoulds” aside, the way shame functions psychologically and the extent of its impact may surprise those who are personally unfamiliar with the experience.

According to Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and professor at Oxford, those who are publicly shamed may become obsessed or preoccupied with their humiliation and “it’s real or imagined agents or perpetrators” for months, or even years. “When we are humiliated, we can almost feel our heart shriveling,” Burton wrote of the destructive power of humiliation in Psychology Today.  “Severe humiliation can be seen as a fate worse than death in that it destroys our reputation as well as our life, whereas death merely destroys our life.” 

If they strike a nerve, these public shamings gain tremendous traction, which was the experience of B*, a victim of viral woke shaming. When a tweet she wrote criticizing the practice of soliciting gifts or money online was interpreted as an attack on feminism and sex workers, the outrage went international. As a Middle Eastern woman who worked in media at an openly feminist website, B felt like assumptions about her identity took the shaming further. 

“They don’t think of it as bullying. They think of it as activism,” B says. “And what makes it even sadder is they do it in the name of something positive, whether it’s feminism or equality. Because this person once said something problematic, they deserve to be bullied? I’m definitely not who they said I was, but it’s this helpless feeling. There’s a lot of anger. It makes me sad, actually. People really live their day-to-day filled with this rage and hate for people they disagree with.” 

Though the shaming process itself may seem like a small thing, it can lead to a whole host of psychological imbalances. “Shame also leads to anger, aggression, and the desire to punish and harm other people,” writes Andreas Kappes for the University of Oxford’s site Practical Ethics. “Such actions are then interpreted by the attackers as even more evidence for why the other person is wrong and horrible, leading to more attacks. A sad, self-reinforcing circle—which can be witnessed daily on the internet — ensues.” 

The real kicker when it comes to shaming, though, is that it almost never works the way shamers hope it will. Shame researchers frequently note that it’s almost impossible for shame to lead to introspection or a change in behavior. “For most people, the rehabilitating, ego-threatening nature of shame makes such constructive outcomes difficult, if not impossible,” write professors of psychology June Price Tangney, PhD, and Jessica Tracy, PhD, in Handbook of Self and Identity.   

“There is a widely held assumption that because shame is so painful, at least it motivates people to avoid ‘doing wrong,’” they continue. “As it turns out virtually no direct evidence supports this presumed adaptive function of shame. To the contrary, research suggests that shame may even make things worse.” Defensive reactions to shame can lead to a whole host of effects that range in severity from fear and anxiety to full-blown trauma, including flashbacks, nightmares and sleeplessness, suspicion and paranoia, social isolation, apathy, depression, and even suicidal ideation. 

Not everyone who makes good-faith mistakes in their online activism and gets called out is traumatized by it; certain preexisting conditions greatly increase the likelihood of trauma. Researchers determined shame-proneness is linked to those who have suffered previous traumas, like childhood abuse or sexual and/or emotional abuse. If the scope of a shaming is wide enough, it can lead to traumatized behavior — but even on a smaller scale, the impact of a shaming can be enormous if the target is shame-prone. This also means that the most vulnerable and weakest among us are going to struggle the most when they are shamed. 

In Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk, “The Price of Shame,” she brings up the phrase “humiliated to death,” linking the process of public shaming to one of its darkest end results. “Research last year determined that humiliation is a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger,” Lewinsky explains, drawing on scholarly research along with her own personal experience as the arguable patient zero for modern mass-scale shaming. 

“Online, technologically enhanced shaming is amplified, uncontained, and permanently accessible,” Lewinsky continues. “There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the internet has jacked up that price. Millions of people, often anonymously, can stab you with their words. And that’s a lot of pain.” 

Shamers who feel a sense of moral righteousness in their behavior are justified by the thought that they’re teaching other people how to be more “woke.” But Lewinsky is a prime example of how shaming can age poorly. Years ago, when she was slut-shamed and derided for having an affair with President Clinton, the majority opinion — even among many liberals — was that she was getting what she deserved.  In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, a new, more empathetic perspective on her experience is emerging. 

The solution to halting the cycle, offers shame expert Brené Brown, is empathy. “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy,” says Brown, a prominent researcher on shame who rose to fame via her viral TED Talk on the subject in 2012. (“Listening to Shame” currently hovers at just under 2 million views.) “Empathy is the antidote to shame,” she continues. “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle? Me too. If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.” 

Though Brown’s lecture predates the #MeToo movement, the correlation is striking. Mistakes are part of being human, but there is a difference between the uninformed, the overeager, or the careless and those who are hateful and willfully prejudiced. Angrily instigating a public shaming from behind a screen is much easier than having the kind of earnest, difficult conversations that can actually change minds. Building a movement that trades on vulnerability and empathy instead of shame and potential trauma may not be as trendy as wokeness, but it stands a better chance of changing our world than a few angry tweets. 

*Name changed for privacy.


(Caitlin White has been a Medium member since August 2017. She describes herself as a manic pixie dream, and emotional reporter, an editorial director of music @ uproxx.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.