Woke vs Based: The Real Political Dog-whistles

Ellie McFarland | @el_farawayland

When tragedy strikes in the form of a politically or religiously motivated violence, people across the spectrum come out of the woodwork to condemn some favorite media villain. Sometimes it’s video games or guns; but after the heartbreaking Christchurch mosque shooting, it was memes. Yes, those innocuous images and inside jokes people share were villainized because of the shooter’s actions. He referenced memes during and before his actions and the media ran with it, branding “crab rave” and popular YouTuber PewDiePie as alt-right dog-whistles.

Dog-whistles, a term William Safire first coined, refers to the practice, specifically in opinion polling, of using coded language which appears to “outsiders” as one thing, but to “insiders” as another. In the media, the examples are mostly politicians saying “urbans” or  “thugs” when supposedly, they’re really referring to black people. Now though, people use dog-whistle to refer to the secondary definitions of a phrase, word, or topic. Many use them to tell where others lie politically and to judge whether or not they agree with you.

Most of these “new wave” examples of dog whistles are highly inaccurate. Things like the OK sign, Pepe the frog, and recently, PewDiePie have been branded both by mainstream and some independent media as alt-right dog whistles. ContraPoints, a popular leftwing Youtuber, addresses these commonly sighted examples in her video, How to Recognise a Fascist. However, while she recognized that these symbols are not ever precisely diagnostic of a real fascist, she failed to recognize the easiest way to place someone politically. It is the “Woke vs Based Dichotomy”.

Woke vs Based

In internet politics, where much of modern politics is taking place, the most reliable way to generally place someone on the political spectrum is how they choose to express their political agreement with something or someone. Neo-liberals and those of the mainstream left tend to say things are woke, and those on the right or on the anti-statist side tend to say things are based.

Based and woke both originated in African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE. The Black Lives Matter movement popularized the term, using it to refer to people “awake” to the reality of racial oppression. Until around 2017, the word still referred to things related to race issues, such as police brutality and race-based class oppression. More recently, pop-liberal spaces use it to refer to people, corporations, ideas, or statements that are in tune with their agreed-upon narrative. It usually describes something that falls in line with or expands upon pop-leftist talking points or ideas.

The Evolution of “Based”

“Based” has a little more of a checkered history. Coming also from AAVE, its original meaning denoted a person high on crack or a person who’s a “crack-head” in general. In 2007, rapper Lil B reappropriated the word in his debut album titled “Based Boys”. Within the context of his album, he used the word not to refer to drug users, but to refer to someone who is unabashedly themselves. This new positive definition was like catnip for the internet where it became popular vernacular in the rap community.

But in 2014, as gamergate was in full swing, it picked up its new meaning when people began referring to commentator and professor Dr. C. H. Sommers as “Based Mom”. Sommers ran a commentary program on the Youtube channel for American Enterprise Institute called “The Factual Feminist”. She shared her thoughts on the gamergate fiasco and various other feminist issues through a conservative, second-wave feminist lens. It was such a diversion from the norm for a self-described feminist to speak against false statistics such as “the wage gap” that it shocked her viewers.

“Based”, in its current rendition, now refers to someone who is connected to reality. This reality usually aligns with anything diverging from pop-liberalism or pop-conservatism. “Based” is especially common in anti-establishment circles, with right and left-libertarian groups alike using it frequently. Trump supporters have also adopted the term and use it with regularity, despite little overlap between them and the libertarians.

The Hidden Truth

What is particularly interesting about the “Woke vs Based” dichotomy is how both sides, both words, refer to something not only true but is a truth that most people cannot see. You are woke where others are benighted, you are based where others have sipped too much kool-aid. It’s the same line from two different sources. It just happens to be that the two sides have entirely antithetical ideas about the veil of the world and what is behind it.

The important thing to glean from this conflict of language and ideology is that although it’s a relatively reliable way to place people in one of two categories, that is not nearly enough. Two categories, pop-liberal and the anti-establishment, is not adequate. This is how innocuous images like Pepe the Frog became symbols of radicalization. There was a niche sect of people adapting the idea over and over again, even into pure irony, and the media vilified it. Dog-whistles, as a rule, are not good enough ways of pinning people as radicals to mean anything. It is always, without a doubt, better to ask a person or listen to their genuine statements in order to know their real stances on specific issues.

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