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    Woke, Woker, Wokest

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    We live in a world divided by the woke and unwoke.

    It would be so simple if there were only those two groups. The problem is the groups within a group. Let’s set the unwoke to the side for the moment. Of course, we’d like to bop them on the head and say, “Here’s some coffee. Wake up!” But it’s not that easy. A lot of them are quite proud of being wokephobic. It’s everywhere. In fact, a recent New York Times headline was “Anti-Trump vs. Anti-Woke,” with the article addressing Virginia’s governor’s race. For now, let’s just look at our own woke campground for a bit and do some self-reflection and assessment.

    To state the obvious, woke is good. Woke is important. Woke is critical to our survival. We’ve made tremendous strides here in Woke World. And although the trek is tough, we are having success, nonetheless. In the last election, according to HRC, LGBTQ+ candidates were up over 20%. We’re making inroads at every level and winning some big ones along the way, not the least of which are the first openly gay cabinet member Pete Buttigieg, whose nation just celebrated his and his husband’s twins; Eric Fanning, the first openly gay secretary of the army; and LGBT and POC governors, plus many more. And they’re all woke leaders!

    Unfortunately for some, it’s not enough just to be woke anymore. We now have stages of wokeness or wokehood. And we have a new group of wokescolds. Perhaps this is a new term for you. It was new to me until not long ago. While the term is new, the concept has been around for, oh, maybe ever. We are unfortunately in a time when wokescold has taken on new energy and significance—and a lot of new practitioners. Many of those have decided to make themselves the wokesperson for others. We’ve seen this before in what President Obama called the circular firing squad.

    I’ve experienced this recently, about 5 years ago, and, interestingly enough, in 1976. More on these a bit later. But first, perhaps a quick glossary lesson would help.

    According to Merriam-Webster, woke means, “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” That’s a very good thing. It would be a great thing if people could just be one or the other—woke or unwoke. But no. Why? Because humans.

    Now for wokescold. It can be a noun or a verb. Here’s what Wiktionary has to say:

    wokescold – noun

    A person who criticizes or shames others for being insufficiently woke, or not supporting social justice causes. Sometimes referred to as a wokester.

    wokescold – verb

    To aggressively chastise or berate somebody for holding insufficiently left-Liberal political or social views.

    We live in a culture that loves competition and levels of success. First, you’ve got your plain old woke. Then you have your super woke. They tend to look down on the plain old woke. Then there are the uber woke. Their feet barely touch the ground when they walk. And at the top of the pyramid, the super uber woke.

    I am reminded of the beauty pageants for children highlighted in the television series Tots and Tiaras. They are very popular where I came from. Everyone wins a title and a trophy. But, at the end of the day, there are three coveted big ones. Just winning the title Supreme will send you home in shock and awe and bitter. Winning Ultimate Supreme is just enough to get your parents to spring for the better spray tan and fake front teeth. Winning Ultimate Grand Supreme wins you a 6-foot trophy and allows the winner to look at those whose trophies are only slightly taller than they are. They’re the “bless your heart” contestants.

    Even Taco Bell has fallen into the supreme and ultimate supreme temptation. I use these ludicrous examples of pageants and tacos to remind us how incredibly insidious and destructive rungs of the ladder can be. Woke is not a ladder.

    Author Michael Harriot penned an insightful article in The Root where he describes 6 levels of awokedness.

    1. Asleep
    2. Groggy
    3. Newly Woke
    4. Eyes Wide Open
    5. Woke AF
    6. Insomniac

    He describes #5 as follows: This is also when you start adopting the woke-abulary. You no longer discuss things; you “unpack” them. You can’t argue with someone who has a Ph.D. in Wokeology.

    How did we get so divided that it has brought on wokescolding? Much of it was brought about by a series of massive societal changes for which we woke people have passion for but at different levels. When Trump took office, everything was lit on fire. We had floated along for 8 years feeling things were being handled. With the arrival of Trump, everything escalated—fueled by our fear and their lighter fluid. Taking a broad look at the last 5 years, here are only a few of the things that have turned our world upside down: #MeToo; Black Lives Matter; The Bathroom Bill; Pulse; Parkland; a PANDEMIC; and Texas, a class of disaster all its own.

    Those are just the things that impacted the public at large. The things each of us has gone through on a personal level add up to what might seem to be “more than we can take.” And for many, it has been just that. The countless important issues are more than any one person can embrace at one time. We have to make choices as to where we put our energy, focus, and resources. This leaves an opening for people to wokescold those who are not as passionate about their causes.

    Incalculable good has also come from the difficult events and movements listed above. New initiatives toward DEI have been adopted across the country at every level, evidencing stronger recognition of white privilege and institutional racism. We’re looking seriously at police funding and social systems. More emphasis is being placed on pronouns and acceptance of the broad spectrum of our human race. The Texas early-stage abortion ruling has created its own firestorm of protests, but there is still an outside chance good can come from the crazy down there.

    Two of my own life experiences—one only a few years past, one almost 50 years—tell memorable stories for me. I’ll start with the oldest.

    What is happening in the public arena these days is exactly what has happened in religion ever since religion began. As most of you know, I was a very good Baptist boy. I grew up in the fold. I went to a Baptist college and married a good Baptist girl the same day I graduated. She and I became missionary journeymen giving two years to the Baptists—like the Mormons but without the bicycles and name tags. Throughout my entire journey, I had an incredible woman who helped raise and mentor me. She and mom performed all over the world (including Billy Graham crusades) for almost 20 years. She was my Baptist Mother Teresa.

    In 1975, everything changed. That year, our friend received the “second blessing.” She was filled with the Holy Spirit. You could tell ‘cause she did some of that speaking in tongues. She got Jesus-woke! Actually, Jesus-woker than the rest of us, at least.

    She decided that anyone who wasn’t as woke as she and didn’t get the same “fill ’er up” of the Spirit could no longer be part of her life. She let my mother know that they would no longer perform together and their 20 years of performing just didn’t count because neither of them had received the 2nd blessing. She wrote a letter to me and my wife (we were then the aforementioned Southern Baptist missionary journeymen in Austria). It was with a heavy heart that she needed to share with us that she had been noticing “leakage” in our Holy Spirit gas tank. Her ascension to a “higher” level of spirituality split our family in two. We didn’t see her for decades after this. It was a lose/lose.

    There have always been those who fell into the category of “Holier Than Thou.” That can now be translated as “Woker Than Thou.” The Church Lady on SNL would say, “Isn’t that special?” Woke is good. It gives life. But wokescolding is not good. It drains life. At the very core, being woke is about humility. Wokescolding is about arrogance.

    Some years ago, I was conducting a national honors choir at Carnegie Hall. The concert presenter had informed me that I would have a chamber orchestra of 15 players. I entered that magnificent hall to hear the dress rehearsal for the other group performing that night. What to my wondering eye should appear but an orchestra of 25! Shocked, I immediately sought out the presenter. I asked, in an indignant voice, “I thought you said our orchestra was limited to 15 players?” She kept her eyes focused on the stage as she replied, “Keep your eyes on your own yoga mat.”

    My immediate reaction was, “I don’t own a yoga mat!” Moments later, it hit me that what she was saying wasn’t about yoga at all. I understood that my yoga mat was my 200 amazing singers and 15-piece chamber orchestra. I went backstage, pumped myself up, and conducted the heck out of my half. It wasn’t a contest, but we won!

    I’ve used that often with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. It is so tempting to worry about others’ mats. I’ve been using it recently as people have started wokescolding me and others. I want to say, “Don’t you have enough on your own yoga mat without trying to manage or criticize others’ stuff?” We need to work at being woke without wokescolding. I repeat: it drains life.

    Reminder to self: Never scold others who are differently-woke! No scolding, just loving. None of this is to imply that we woke folks should never share our thoughts or concerns with others. It’s all in the messaging, the delivery, and the level of trust in the relationship you have with a person. Beginning with my own struggles with a certain issue is a first step.

    We need to be grateful for all people who are in the Woke Club. In a perfect world, it would be a club without judgment—just a level playing field of encouragement and acceptance. This may sound naïve in the “Why can’t we just get along?” camp. I still hope and think we can.

    I do know we must resist the very human temptation to look around the room to check out who has a bigger Bible, more orchestra players, or taller tiaras.

    I’m grateful for you and that you’re woke. That’s enough for me.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on October 21, 2021