“Woke” and Context

The “cancel culture” is close to being out of control – or maybe it is already. On the one side, there is an extreme left that sees the current socio-economic structure and culture as fatally flawed and that takes even slight lapses and misunderstandings as intentional slights or attacks, and on the right, a mass of conservatives who insist that everything is just fine the way it is and that, even if it’s not, the extreme leftists are taking things far too far.

What I’ve noticed repeatedly is how often matters are taken out of context. For example, a performing arts instructor who had worked with a student for more than three years, giving that student additional instruction, alerting the student to opportunities and funding, and going the extra mile, wrote the student an email to point out that the student had showed a considerable lack of courtesy and respect in handling a situation, adding a note that such behavior would hurt the student if repeated in professional situations because the performing arts community can be a very small world at times. The student ended up filing a grievance that almost resulted in the instructor being dismissed. The instructor was trying to be helpful, alerting the student to an unprofessional behavior, nothing more, but because of the ultra-sensitivity of the words along the lines of “it’s a small world,” the administration panicked. That situation was far different from the ones where Harvey Weinstein used those words to threaten young actresses not to report his physical assaults.

Instances like those of the instructor are far from rare and are getting more and frequent, and I suspect it’s because the “cancel culture” is far too focused on “forbidden” buzzwords than on evaluating words and phrases in their context, and, from what I’ve observed, often too little attention is paid to actions that indicate that the speaker certainly meant neither offense nor harm.

Likewise, conservatives have little or no understanding of the pain that lies behind the use of various phrases that anger the left, because they don’t or can’t understand the context in which those words and phrases were used, both in the past and at times still in the present.

All too often context is everything, but the shouts are so loud that context is lost.

11 thoughts on ““Woke” and Context”

  1. Michael Creek says:

    And many experienced people are rejecting opportunities to mentor due to the risks involved.

  2. Tom says:

    A shout is part of body language. It imparts emotion.

    Many people pay more attention to body language than the words used to communicate. Much of the time body language adds emphasis which is intended and adds meaning to what is communicated.

    A matter of balance is needed: but, if emotion is felt, it is best to respond to the dictionary meaning of the words used in the communication.

    A significant part of mentoring is instilling honesty and understanding of the self of the person being mentored – often the hardest part of the analysis and synthesis to be taught and to be learned.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    There is a question of (not) giving offense vs (not) taking offense. Should everyone really know the history of every group and person to the degree needed to avoid inadvertent offense?

    Yes, a lot of words and phrases (and apparently gestures; and those are even more problematic when you travel; like the bottom of a shoe, etc) _can_ have offensive meanings; but many likely had other meanings as well. Take the phrase mentioned as an example: regardless of who abused it, it was much earlier used with the intent of inclusiveness (albeit a ’50s or earlier era view of inclusiveness, too stereotypical and insufficiently chunky stew by modern leftist sensibilities); and of course, in context, it simply means a group or category where enough people know each other that you don’t want the word spread about you that you’re rude or difficult.

    So naturally everyone who doesn’t fit all the category boxes of the listener is supposed to spend lots of time finding out every word or phrase that has ever been abused in such a way that it might (even if, when used in the offensive context (only!)) push their buttons.

    Not possible, I think.

    As long as someone isn’t being discourteous by a standard that doesn’t require them to be a mind reader, I think they should have the benefit of the doubt. That’s not to say that there aren’t words or phrases obvious enough for a person with courteous intent but perhaps less than diverse cultural experience to avoid (although I think that all words, even the most offensive, have a place in accurate period dialog in a historical novel, no matter how much some might wish to censor that).

    Mark Twain was for his time quite sympathetic to the oppressed, and his characters simply talked like people did, with perhaps indifference or limited awareness to the offensiveness of some words, and with no awareness even on the author’s part about how far people might later fall into counting codewords rather than reading and understanding what they read.

    1. Ralph R. Rea says:

      Please. This is whataboutism. A lot of the “buzzwords” that offend are well known to everyone. They don’t require in depth research of a culture or knowledge. They are used deliberately and provocatively or, perhaps even worse, used without thought because of the ingrained bigotry of the person involved. I don’t know who you are or what your past is or what groups you belong to, but your answer is the answer of someone from a group that isn’t even vaguely vulnerable to actually feeling the power of “hurting words”. Which is one of the major problems in this situation. Sympathy and empathy are difficult to impossible when the person using the inappropriate word CANNOT actually be hurt in that way. They have no context. No Caucasian American can really understand the feelings African-American seeing a statute glorifying the South in the Civil War (put up as ideological enforcement of Jim Crow decades AFTER the Civil War). You can try to imagine how that would feel but you literally have NO context in which to frame those feelings except by the loosest of analogies. Even someone from a a different marginalized and mistreated group (say, a gay man) can only understand by analogy, hopefully being aware of the fact that what they feel may be similar but is not congruent. Many of the people who feel “canceled” aren’t even vaguely feeling the kind of discomfort that they routinely heap on the people they consider to be their “victimizers” who are asking not to be labeled with words that carry a well-known burden of negative connotations.

      1. M Kilian says:

        The idea of hurting words as universal is absurd. Words considered slurs in the US bear no weight of their meaning in other countries. There are a plethora of slurs that the use of in Africa will elicit a violent reaction, while the use of the word “n****r” is empty and is disregarded as meaningless.

        Even the word “fuck” was once considered widely offensive in the western world and taboo to use in any context, yet modernity celebrates being able to say it in nearly any setting, however vulgar it might be. I live in Australia and c**t is a friendly slang word, while the use of such got me in trouble with all of the women in my family as we came from overseas.

        To communicate properly one must be willing to risk offense- not everyone we talk to will agree with everything we have to say, but we should be able be honest first and try to address miscommunicated assumptions afterward.

        Topics like philosophy and politics are particularly risky in this regard, and in humour comedians must constantly try to find the line between offense and laughter.

      2. R. Hamilton says:

        I know plenty of words I won’t use (most of which I NEVER used).

        I don’t WANT to offend anyone, certainly not as a member of a group (there may be individuals I’d be sorely tempted to offend on the basis of their obnoxious conduct, but that’s another story). But I’d rather not have to expand my word lists or otherwise use special courtesy for an ever increasing list of categories of persons. I’d REALLY prefer to extend the courtesy of ignoring them to ALL strangers, just as I would to strangers that looked like me; I have no interest in affirming or acknowledging even people I know most of the time, and the difficulties that strangers may have had are THEIR problem. The fundamental courtesy of ignoring people is to not waste their time, because I’m not worth theirs, and neither are they worth mine. What goes on in their heads I don’t WANT to know, although I’m watching even if I’m pretending not to, because crazies could look like me just as easily as they could look not like me.

        So I’m already doing more for people that don’t look like me (acknowledging them, since most seem to expect it, stopping 10 yards further away at a crosswalk, since some seem to suppose that I want a trophy or to appear threatening, which I don’t) than for those that do.

        My only legitimate interests are that I do NOT purposely add to the difficulties of those that might be thought to have more than their share, and that I might if necessary defend someone that needed defending on an individual basis, in person, quite without regard to whether they did or didn’t look like me. But strangers are just numbers or (mostly negative) news items until I meet them. As a category, I don’t like any strangers, not even relatives I haven’t ever met. I don’t particularly dislike them either, except insofar as they always seem to be either in the way or want something. (although the non-strangers can be even worse about wanting something)

        As for the “woke”, “cancel culture”, and all leftists, I think karma would dish them out a double portion of all the liberty destroying and aggravation that they inflict on others.

        Just leave each other alone is the way to live, unless there’s something really cool that needs to be done cooperatively, or in rare cases where SPECIFIC needs come to one’s attention.

        1. Tom says:

          I would appreciate a reference describing the freedom:

          which you as a human have a right to


          which does not restrict the freedom of some other person in your chosen social environment.

          1. Hanna says:

            “I don’t WANT to offend anyone…”
            Uh-huh. Right. And then he goes on to write;

            ‘…As for the “woke”, “cancel culture”, and all leftists, I think karma would dish them out a double portion of all the liberty destroying and aggravation that they inflict on others.’

            Did anyone really expect R.Hamilton to quit his day job as a mouthpiece for the insurrectionist, voter-suppressing, insidious gerrymandering Alt-right/QAnon loving GOP, as well as a rep for the “former guy #45”, and speak honestly about what his [member of a] group really thinks?

            “Liberty destroying and aggravation”? Tool.

          2. R. Hamilton says:

            I suppose the freedom to be left alone infringes on someone else’s freedom to be a nuisance. Too bad. Being left alone may not meet the needs of the nuisance-some, but it doesn’t take anything away from them either.

      3. R. Hamilton says:

        I feel the power of a fist hitting me, but not nearly as much the power of words. If someone thinks they can trash me with words, they’ve just warned me to be ready for what they might try next.

        I DO understand, if rarely directly, that people have sensitivities, that behind some of those there’s centuries of history and context, and behind most of the rest there’s at least personal context and way too much cruelty and indifference. But it’s still not in THEIR best interests to give others power over them to push their buttons.

        So yes, there’s lots said that’s intentionally hurtful, but there’s lots more said that is perhaps just not careful enough. For the latter case, though one might regret the injustice that led to the sensitivity, there’s such a thing as expecting too much, expecting the majority (not just by color, either) to conform to the sensitive minority.

        Darwin sez it’s the responsibility of the vulnerable to deal with their vulnerability. Even if cooperation exists (such as collectively protecting the young, common enough even in herd animals) to mitigate that, the first line of defense is always the individual, and is really based in their mind and outlook rather than physical action.

  4. Patrick says:

    Wow Hanna. That is very friendly, enlightening, and open minded of you.

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