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Opinion: Stop calling everything woke

It is ruining our discourse.
Image by Noah Liebl
Through its weaponization, the word “woke” has lost all meaning.

In today’s conservative political climate, there is not a single word thrown around more than “woke.” While most party members take no issue with the word, some — including Donald Trump — don’t seem to care for it.

“I don’t like the term woke. Woke, woke, woke. It’s just a term they use, half the people can’t define it, they don’t know what it is,” Trump said during a conservative breakfast event in Iowa last summer.

Although Trump has since contradicted himself countless times by using this word to define Disney, the U.S. military, the NBA and political opponents, he is right about one thing: 

Nobody knows what this word means anymore. 

Definitions of the term differ greatly, according to a poll by USA Today and Ipsos. 56% of Americans polled consider wokeness to mean you are educated on social issues, while 40% believe it means unnecessary political correctness.

Unsurprisingly, 78% of the former identify as Democrats and 56% of the latter identify as Republicans. 

Despite its original meaning, which has been heavily misconstrued over time, many Americans believe the word can be applied anywhere they see fit.

Many see it as an aggressive political agenda attempting to make them feel guilty for being white. Others see it as the indoctrination of their young children in the classroom. In the entertainment industry, the word primarily acts as “old reliable” for viewers lacking the ability to articulate their displeasure with a film or television show. 

To Matt Cikovic, teaching assistant professor of visual and multimedia journalism, usage of this word in entertainment often reflects a restorative nostalgic bias.

“There are also people who have nostalgic ideas about their entertainment,” Cikovic said. “Anything that challenges it, they will immediately say, ‘That is different, it is not what I grew up with.’” 

People have been doing this for decades. Those who feel this way about entertainment tend to let this nostalgia cloud their judgment of social and political issues. There is a reason why Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit “The Times They Are a-Changin” still resonates — it calls out people who think like this. 

Nowadays, these feelings manifest through terms like “woke mind virus,” “woke mob” and “woke legislature.” These terms are thrown around by politicians, online influencers and white suburban dads almost every day. 

The problem is not that parents take issue with the content schools teach their kids or filmgoers dislike a movie because of the message it preaches. Freedom to debate societal and cultural issues is and must continue to be an essential right. 

The problem is in the language they use. 

By using words like woke as an umbrella term to describe different social, cultural and political dynamics, you are throwing all opportunities for nuance out the window.

Identifying someone as woke effectively assigns them a badge. Since black-and-white thinking has corrupted our discussions, if you meet the extremely vague requirements for this badge, your viewpoint is incorrect and threatens all that is good in the world. 

People who carelessly throw this term around act as if they are brave heroes defending their kingdom from this “threat.” But ask them to define this threat or their kingdom, and you will get completely different answers.

In his lesser-known essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell further explains why this is a problem. 

Orwell wrote that politicians can easily obscure truth, manipulate emotion and public opinion, and undermine opponents’ ability to address their words through the use of vague and misleading language. To Orwell, foolish thoughts are made easier by “the slovenliness of our language.” 

Blaming the politicians is an easy explanation for this slovenliness present in our discourse. 

Mason Epeneter, chairman of Minnesota College Republicans, said Ron DeSantis is a marketing genius for his weaponization of the term woke. 

“People react strongly to it, whether you agree with it or not,” Epeneter said. 

Because of the reactions it elicits from the average political stooge, there is no reason to stop using it. The responsibility ultimately falls on the people to stop letting this word infect our discourse. 

Unfortunately, everyone is failing tremendously and has been for a while now. Terms like “bleeding heart,” “PC” and “hippie” have been around forever. Woke has only been the next evolution of this trend and, like the other terms, will eventually be replaced by something else.

It is hard not to believe our discourse has reached a point of no return, but that does not mean we should accept it. 

“If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration,” Orwell wrote.

The dynamics surrounding the word woke are prevalent on both sides of the spectrum, just with different words. The same people who might admonish the usage of the word woke will not hesitate to label someone a sexist, racist, fascist or even Nazi. 

This deliberate lack of specificity is disingenuous on both sides and only serves to vilify likely well-meaning people. 

If thoughtful political, social and cultural dialogue is what you desire, then I implore you to think twice before using woke or any similar terms.

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  • Josh
    Feb 27, 2024 at 4:11 pm

    While it is annoying that people use the word “woke” for anything they feel is too far to the left of the political spectrum, this is a very one-sided take and fails to address the whole problem.

    I understand that whataboutism is generally the weakest kind of argument that can be made, but I’d argue that many on the Left have been worse in this aspect by labeling anything and anyone with moderate or conservative political views as “alt-right”, “far-right”, “N*zis”, “Fascists”, “racists”, etc. I know you addressed this at the end, but to make this basically a footnote, rather than part of your original point seems a little dishonest. And let’s be honest, is being called “woke”, “bleeding heart”, or “hippie” anywhere near as insulting/damaging as being labeled a “sexist”, “racist”, “fascist”, or “N*zi”?

    I don’t disagree with your opinion, necessarily, but I think this would’ve been a stronger article if the focus hadn’t been almost exclusively on one political ideology. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter. Both sides are entrenched in their ideas, and there are very few who are open to what the other side has to say because each view the other side as evil. I would argue that there is a mind virus pandemic in today’s political climate, except it afflicts both sides of the political aisle and prevents people from seeing those they disagree with as humans who are mostly good people. Definitely doesn’t help that both sides will then gravitate to “news sources” that further confirm their biases.

    Sorry, bit of a rant. Just my two cents…

  • Jim Vlcek
    Feb 25, 2024 at 1:58 pm

    This “white suburban dad”, unlike the other Jim who has replied, was amused by your assignment of an identity to us. You might be surprised by the diversity of viewpoint you would find amongst suburban dads, white or otherwise.
    The real challenge is that using pejoratives like “woke” works. So long as political benefit can be obtained via their use, they will be used. The true challenge is to figure out how to change our environment such that an accusation like “woke” simply does not register with any useful percentage of the population. What is it that people are reacting to, what is the anxiety that they are feeling, such that “woke” persuades them to one side of a political argument? And, having identified these root causes, what do we do to eliminate them?

  • Jim
    Feb 21, 2024 at 10:00 am

    As a “white suburban dad” I do not manifest your “woke” terms. Singling out people based on them being different is wrong. You are only trying to divide people based on age, gender and ethnicity. You don’t know what I believe, what I support or how I feel. With daughters in college I have been open, understanding and supportive of change and other opinions. It seems you only want to point a finger and single me out. This is offensive and wrong.
    Jim (A white suburban dad)