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A question for Willie O’Dea and Sharon Keogan: What exactly do you mean by ‘woke’?

Unthinkable: It’s worth learning to spot linguistic devices to avoid plain speech, which can have real impacts on Irish society

A few years ago a satirical online site was created to churn out formulaic expressions of Irish cynicism. It was called “Random Comment Generator” – no reflection, it must be said, on that respectable publisher. The joke was rather on reactionary keyboard opinionators who have multiplied on news and social media platforms.

“No one in their right minds wants the woke snowflakes in Government with their fear porn”, the generator spews out, only in angry capital letters. “The Green Party would sell their own mothers just to get into power and keep their snouts in the trough.” And so on.

The online tool is still available, although the comments are a little dated as many are laced with Covid conspiracy. Luckily though we have X, the social media platform, to take up the running with its army of bots.

This one, for example, appeared prominently on my feed the other day: “These in order are the political parties of the #Wokerati #ClownShow we have in this country. Avoid voting for them to get anywhere near power at national level to protect your family, your community and your country. Labour, Green Party, Social Democrats, Profit before People [sic], Fine Gael, Sinn Fein [sic], Fianna Fáil.”


So the bot ejected, with skull emojis next to each party’s name. Oh, sorry, this wasn’t a bot. It was Independent Senator Sharon Keogan.

It’s tempting to dismiss this type of omni-slur as political rough-and-tumble – Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea was at it too, telling the Government in the wake of the referendum results to “stop playing to the woke gallery”. But cynicism can have a corrosive effect on public debate: the care and family referendum campaigns provided some evidence of that.

While there was plenty of informed and healthy discussion in the run-up to March 8th, there was also a widely-shared narrative that the referendums were a conspiracy against the Irish people.

This drift towards weaponising language against democratic norms is explored in a new book, Dogwhistles and Figleaves, by British political philosopher Jennifer Mather Saul

Some conspiracy theories are true, as the political philosopher Quassim Cassam points out. He highlights the case of the Birmingham Six against whom agents of the British state conspired. However, he says, “virtuous thinkers are guided by the evidence rather than by their own prejudices”. In short, conspiracies need to be proven.

The idea that the Government was hiding something during the referendum campaigns was reinforced by an edited clip that went viral of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar praising “family responsibility”. Follow-up comments about the need for the State to invest more in carers was cut out of the footage. Taken in abridged form, Varadkar’s interview was framed as him “saying the quiet part out loud” – the implication being that this was some kind of governmental Freudian slip. But Varadkar stood over his comments, which are not particularly controversial when taken as a whole. Even if you disagree with his emphasis on family responsibility, he is expressing an opinion. Are we now to judge any sincerely-held viewpoint expressed by a member of Government as grounds for some kind of “gotcha” moment?

This drift towards weaponising language against democratic norms is explored in a new book, Dogwhistles and Figleaves, by British political philosopher Jennifer Mather Saul.

The idea behind a dogwhistle is to send a coded message to your support base without explicitly disclosing your ideology. They come in overt and covert forms, according to Saul. An example of the former is #Traitors – a term directed at TDs perceived to be soft on immigration. An example of a covert dogwhistle is the phrase “unvetted, military age men”. It is also what Saul would call a “blatant falsehood” since all International Protection applicants go through detailed security checks and fingerprinting at ports of entry to the State. The “military age” bit signals these people are somehow dodging responsibility or otherwise threatening our society. (Why not “working age” instead?)

“Plausible deniability” is key. Comments and phrases must be sufficiently loose.

These dogwhistles have real effects. The uptick in attacks and other acts of intimidation against TDs is being cheered on from somewhere. A desensitisation appears to have taken place in Irish society, when hundreds of vulnerable people, many of whom have fled persecution and abuse, are allowed to live in tents on our streets.

As for figleaves, an example Saul gives is “woke”. She explains a figleaf is “a bit of speech” that is used to cover up utterances that might otherwise be seen as discriminatory. Calling someone woke or politically correct can also be used “to discredit” anyone who criticises discrimination.

You can’t legislate against this type of speech. However, “letting language like this go unchecked and unremarked on only normalises it”, Saul says. She quotes linguist Victor Klemperer when he said: “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have little effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”

A step in the right direction would be to demand those participating in public debate, especially members of the Oireachtas, to be more precise about the meaning of their words. So here’s a question for Senator Keogan and Deputy O’Dea: What do you mean when you use the w-word?

The historian Tom Holland describes “woke” as a modern form of commitment to social justice that has its roots in Christian principles. Is that what you’re against?