Love & Wisdom

Publisher’s Note: The Lost Art of Civility

How to bring back respectful discourse

By Jonathan Sposato November 6, 2023

Photograph of Jonathan Sposato, owner and publisher of Seattle and Seattle Business magazines

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Can a city be too “woke”? That’s a provocative question. If we root the term to its original definition from early 1900s to 1950s African American culture, “woke” is an adjective  generally defined as “being alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.”

Beginning about 10 years ago, it came to also encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism and LGBTQ+ rights. So, the obvious answer is “no,” we are not too woke. We have much more hard work ahead to drive greater awareness on all these issues.

To this day, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ+ rights are still paramount, and women’s reproductive rights should continue to be of monumental importance. And, arguably, we have gone backward on most fronts recently, as we appear to be at the most fractured and tenuous time since the civil rights movement began in earnest six decades ago. No way, we are definitely not too woke.

But is the mere use of the term “woke” triggering? And what does that tell us about the current climate for sincere dialogue, identity politics, and respectful discourse among people who don’t have the benefit of knowing each other well? We all know that the term has recently been co-opted by the right as a sort of catch-all for any ideology deemed dangerous or ridiculous to them. 

But if English is a living language, what does “woke” now mean in the common vernacular among moderates and even liberals? ABC News recently reported that the definition of the term woke changes, depending on where you live and whom you ask. Here in Seattle, can perfectly well-intentioned progressives use “too woke” as shorthand to challenge ideas that can be counterintuitive, misguided, or simply just confusing?

We use the term on the November/December 2023 issue’s cover to explore our community’s thresholds. Are social issues as binary as they sometimes seem? Are you always either on one side or the other? And, if you and I disagree on an issue, is your strategy to disengage, or to foment anger online? Or do you, as psychologist and professor John Gottman advocates, “get curious”? And finally, what about many of us on the left who have been on the receiving end of vehement ire from like-minded others simply because we used an out-of-date term or committed a forgivable gaffe? 

We’ve invited civic leader and DEI expert Alicia Crank to discuss the lack of civility in modern discourse, while Obama White House Champion of Change Erin Jones explains the origin of the term “woke” and how it evolved. Jones insists that there is no such thing as “too woke,” and that many of us are not as evolved as we’d like to think we are. 

Teen Vogue national columnist Zina Hutton, who has written extensively on Black fandom culture and media analysis, thoughtfully breaks down today’s language policing, infighting, and the misguided desire to label others before we ourselves are labeled. She provides a hopeful note on the future of social justice organizing in a world where we listen and think before we react.

And, if you’ve been intrigued enough to pick up the November/December 2023 issue to “get curious,” then we’re already halfway there. 

About the Publisher’s Note Column

Publisher's Note is Seattle magazine owner Jonathan Sposato's highly subjective perspective on the issues that confront our community the most.  Jonathan's mission with the publication is to focus our attention on solutions, and to change the conversation in Seattle to an always hopeful, positive, and productive place.

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