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Someone Called Me Woo-woo

What the existence of the word "woo-woo" says about the world we live in today.

A year after I moved from Hong Kong to Portland, Oregon, an old friend from the East Coast came to visit. I told her I’d been seeing repeated number sequences – known as angel numbers – more than three times almost every day since the beginning of the pandemic, and that I’d been spinning my chakras to boost my immunity. She looked at me with a quizzical and somewhat disturbed expression and said, “Don’t go all West Coast woo-woo on me now!”

The West Coast of the U.S.– in particular the states of California, Hawaii, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington, and Oregon – was a hotbed for the New Age ideologies that accompanied hippie counterculture in the 1970s. The derogatory slang “woo-woo” surfaced in the ‘80s – a time when America had reverted to Reagan era conservatism, and when capitalism really took off globally. The origin of the slang can be traced to the spooky sounds “woo-woo” that ghosts supposedly make in horror movies. Merriam-webster defines woo-woo as “dubiously or outlandishly mystical, supernatural, or unscientific” and the Cambridge Dictionary defines woo-woo as a thing or way of thinking “based on false beliefs or imaginary things, rather than reason or scientific knowledge”. Woo-wooness is often associated with things that have a New Age bent – think spirits, UFOs, astrology, tarot cards, past life regression, Akashic records, Indian gurus, and (gasp!) suicide cults! It was typically used to reference ludicrous belief systems associated with supernatural, paranormal, occult, or pseudoscientific phenomena, or persons who believed in them. The assumption was that a woo-woo person was illogical, overly emotional, laughably naïve, or weak-minded and easily influenced.

I like to think I’m a pretty rational person with both feet firmly planted on terra firma, so my friend’s comment about me being woo-woo did not go down well. It got me thinking about what words like woo-woo really mean in a sociocultural context. This is what came to me: much like racial or gender specific slurs, the existence of the word woo-woo and its usage today says more about the attitudes of the dominant culture than it does the people, communities or philosophies associated with the label. In the past, it was a great honor for a person to called religious, born-again, saintly, or a mystic. These days, the words religious and born-again more often conjure images of Christian fanaticism, the word saintly more likely brings to mind images of a long-suffering martyrs or people pleasers, an according to psychiatry, a mystic is not far off symptomatically from a lunatic. It is the secularization of developed societies that has given rise to terms like woo-woo, forcing us to subscribe to materialist and scientific world views in lieu of spiritual ones.

If I strip away all the perceived negative connotations attached to woo-woo, then being called woo-woo simply means that I am willing to believe in things that I cannot see, and that I do not act only on hard facts but am open to following my feelings and intuition. Seen this way, I’d take woo-woo any day over being bogged down by empiricism, plagued by cynicism, or cursed with a closed mind.

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