Rodgers Essay: The Social Awakening’s Resonance in a Time of Inflection, Infection and Insurrection

Ron Rodgers, University of Florida

More than once in my journalism classes, I have heard my students attempt to suppress snickers whenever I use the contemporary epithet “woke” in describing the world view of social-justice journalists whose literature of exposure reveals societal inequality – or “injustice,” as the writer Arundhati Roy would prefer.[1] It is as though, in the minds of my students, this guy with graying hair at the front of the classroom is from a generation too far removed to fathom the meaning of – let alone know anything about – this secret handshake of the youthful cognoscenti. I am out of my lane, seems to be the tenor of their titter.

It is that reaction, then, that prompts me to go into a short aside about the fact there is nothing new – especially in America – about the concept of “awakening.” In fact, the continuing Christian revival through the great awakenings in America that was only extinguished by the Civil War “was a central mode of this culture’s search for national identity,” the intellectual historian Perry Miller observed.[2] And as one writer put it in 1870, “a yearning toward social reconstruction has become a part of the continuous, permanent, inner experience of the American People.”[3]

A History of Social Awakening

The use of the term “awakening” conjures notions of religiosity inherent in the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s and its counterpart, the Second Great Awakening sixty years later. However, while the awakening of the early twentieth century used a similar nomenclature as the great religious awakenings of the previous centuries, there was a distinction.

The key was the term “social” – a modifier often used to differentiate “the awakening” of the early twentieth century. Meanwhile, “social” – or even “social justice” – is implicit in the singular expression “woke,” a term that first appeared in print in 1962 in a New York Times Op-Ed titled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” by the African-American writer William Melvin Kelley.[4] The essay implies that to be “woke” is to be “aware” of the encoding and decoding of a swiftly changing language.  But in the way each generation often hijacks the language of the past to circumscribe its present,  “wokeness” is now a term encapsulating “shared practices that might supply grounds for generational self-awareness,” as one contemporary historian has asserted.[5]

Social Awakening and Journalists

My paper in the Summer 2020 issue of Journalism History – “The  Social Awakening and the News: A Progressive Era Movement’s Influence on Journalism and Journalists’ Conceptions of Their Roles” – deals with a similar “generational self-awareness” – a deeply engrained moral ethos that ran through the life of America a century and more ago that affected many walks of life – including  journalists struggling to define their role in society. That ethos also worked to inform the Progressive Era’s growing awareness of the ill effects on society of Herbert Spencer’s ethical system of laissez-faire politics and extreme industrialized individualism that had held sway for so many years.[6]

Broadly speaking, that awareness inspired a general sense of indignation found in much of the work of the era’s Muckrakers. We need walk no farther out our doors today and see the power of indignation and how the exasperation with the straits and injustices of American life inform the general upheaval of protestors and the prose of pundits, polemicists, and journalists alike. Such indignation as an impulse for revelatory journalism has a long history.

As far back as the sixteenth century, Chinese philosopher Li Zhi observed that his writing was fueled by his vexation with the corruption and greed of those who held power over society. “If the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything,” Zhi wrote. “To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick.”[7]

And in the early twentieth-century, the renowned Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, who was responsible for a number of newspaper exposés, “deeply believed that the quality of moral indignation was what separated a good newspaper man from the competent technician.”[8]

The Emergence of Constructive Journalism

In the course of the research on this paper I employed a research matrix with hundreds of notes and citations that I can arrange by date or keywords. One of the peculiarities of a matrix is that as the data accumulates, it tends to tell a tale ­– over even tales – far beyond the specific research task. One such was that the social awakening – as part and parcel with the dawning awareness of the complexities of modernity ­– prompted questions about both the adequacy of the notion of news “mirroring” society and the concept of neutered journalistic objectivity. And in that contestation rested the germ of the notion of “constructive journalism” – which piqued my interest and led to further research and another paper on the topic.[9] Essentially, the concept of the constructive is a product of the social awakening.

Together they helped redefine the journalist as a public servant, newspapers as a public utility, and journalism’s role as educating the public about the new complexities of a modern world’s societal transformations and accompanying aberrations. Fast forward a century to recent scholarly work, apparently blind to the past, designating constructive journalism as a contemporary evolving field[10] and as an “emerging concept”[11] intended to address the complexities and aberrations of our contemporary age.

An Era of Social Transformation

Why the rise of a felt need for a new form of journalism in our own time?  One answer would be that just as the social awakening was a critical juncture extended over many years a century ago, we are now in a similar liminal age. And this inflection point has been especially brought home recently by this era of infection and insurrection that has laid bare the cracks in our foundation. The contemporary sociologist Ann Swidler describes such times of uncertainty as “periods of social transformation” involving “unsettled lives.”[12]  To Swidler’s point, Arundhati Roy in a powerful essay on the pandemic as a kind of social awakening  prompting social change asserts that throughout history pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.[13]

Unsettled times such as the pandemic and the mobilized masses protesting the legacy of civil rights abuses are, as Swidler observes, critical junctures in which old ideas are set aside and new notions of the common sense establish themselves and “play a powerful role in organizing social life.”[14] Media scholar Robert W. McChesney describes a critical juncture as “a period in which the old institutions and mores are collapsing under long-run and powerful pressures” that helps “explain how social change works.” And, he goes on to assert: “Most of our major institutions in media are the result of critical junctures, periods when policies could have gone in other directions, and, had they done so, put media and society on a different path.”[15]

Whether the social awakening of a century ago or the inflection point of our present, these critical junctures reveal how vital journalism is to a democratic society as it acknowledges our very pluralism, valorizes the voices of our diversity, and helps accelerate the arc of history toward social reconstruction.


[1] Waterstones, “Arundhati Roy: The Waterstones Interview,” June 6, 2017  “I would replace ‘inequality’ with ‘injustice,’” Arundhati Roy said in the interview.

[2] Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 6.

[3] John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1870), 24.

[4] William Melvin Kelley, “If You’re Woke, You Dig It,” New York Times, May 20, 1962, 45, 50.

[5] AHR Conversation: Each Generation Writes Its Own History of Generations, The American Historical Review 123, no. 5 (December 2018): 1536.

[6] See, for example, Josiah Strong, The Times and Young Men (New York: Baker and Taylor, 1901), 230.

[7] Quoted in Tamara Heimarck Bentley and Hongshou Chen, The Figurative Works of Chen Hongshou (1599-1652): Authentic Voices/Expanding Markets (Farnham, Surrey, UK, England: Ashgate, 2011), 96.

[8] John Hohenberg, “Herbert Swope’s Career: Tribute Paid to His Contribution to American Journalism,” New York Times, June 28, 1958, 16. As executive editor of the New York World, Swope instigated a number of newspaper crusades, including an exposé of the Ku Klux Klan and its increasing power outside the South and revelation of a peonage system in Florida in which convicts were used as cheap labor.

[9] Ronald R. Rodgers, “Journalism and the Concept of the Constructive,” paper presented at the 2019 AJHA conference, Oct. 3-5, in Dallas, Texas.

[10] Daya Kishan Thussu, Hugo de Burgh, and Anbin Shi, China’s Media Go Global (Abindgon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2018).

[11] Zhang Yanqiu and Simon Matingwina, “Constructive Journalism: A New Journalistic Paradigm of Chinese Media in Africa,” in China’s Media and Soft Power in Africa, edited by Xiaoling Zhang, Herman Wasserman, and Winston Mano (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 96.

[12] Ann Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” American Sociological Review 51, no. 2 (1986): 278.

[13] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic Is a Portal,”  Financial Times, April 3, 2020

[14] Swidler, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,” 278.

[15] Robert W. McChesney, “Freedom of the Press for Whom? The Question to be Answered in Our Critical Juncture,” Hofstra Law Review 35, no. 3 (2007): 1434. See also: Robert McChesney, Communication Revolution: Critical Junctures and the Future of Media (New York: New Press, 2007).

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