The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rhetorical power of the word ‘woke’ is far more obvious than its definition

A voter grabs a sticker after casting a ballot in Iowa last week on Election Day. (Joseph Cress/AP)

The starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers, didn’t play Sunday: He’d contracted covid-19 after deciding against being vaccinated against the coronavirus. In a radio interview, he explained that his assertion in August that he’d been “immunized” against the virus wasn’t a lie but, instead, a way of describing his status as he understood it. But he also suggested that he was taking a moral stand — in the manner of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and that this was prompting political blowback.

“I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now,” Rodgers said, “so before my final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I think I’d like to set the record straight on some of the blatant lies that are out there about myself right now.”

Rodgers’s use of “cancel culture” here is a familiar one. The term has grown in popularity in recent years in response to “cancellations,” instances in which public figures have lost positions or platforms in response to proven or perceived improprieties. The term “cancel culture,” as you probably know, is a pejorative meant to identify the existence of an effort centered not on addressing alarming actions or comments but, instead, on unfairly targeting those whose political views deviate from the left. Over time, use of “cancel culture” has been smoothed down to something broadly akin to “political correctness.” And often, those who’ve been “canceled” were in fact not canceled at all, just criticized a bit, prompting them to step out of the limelight temporarily.

More intriguing is Rodgers’s use of “woke mob.” This too is a descriptor that’s in vogue, but one that’s a lot murkier in its meaning.

Rodgers appears to be deploying it in its loosest form, as a way of waving away a group of critics largely on the political left who are motivated to criticize him because he dared to challenge their agreed-upon consensus. This use of “woke” is mostly a stand-in for the idea that there is an attempt to police language that only the MLK-adjacent dare combat, an adjective being used here to describe “cancel culture” efforts. But it’s also obviously meant to be dismissive, presenting questions about his decision on vaccinations as being motivated by an attempt to enforce consensus.

In the context of politics, “woke” is generally deployed more narrowly, though to the same effect. On Sunday, CNN’s Dana Bash asked Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) whether his party had become “too woke.” This was often taken out of the context in which she asked it, which was in response to comments offered by longtime Democratic strategist James Carville. In a CNN interview, Carville said that the party’s losses in recent Virginia and New Jersey elections were in part a function of “stupid wokeness,” like calls in 2020 to defund police departments. Some Democrats, he said, need to go to a “woke detox center.”

This is much closer to how “woke” emerged in the political debate. It, too, is by now an appropriated descriptor that’s used to disparage rhetoric or policy that is seen as overly centered on discussions of race. What Carville is offering is a Carville-ian entry into the recent debate over whether the party’s focus on issues centered on race is hurting it. Some, like prominent consultant and pollster David Shor, argue that the party should de-emphasize discussions of race and systemic racism in favor of rhetoric that will allow it to better appeal to voters in the rural areas that are disproportionately empowered in the Senate and the electoral college. That argument has often been distilled as the need to push back against “woke” politics — both by Democrats wary of it and, frequently, by people on the political right who want to identify the left as being focused on race in precisely the way that Shor is concerned about.

The debate over critical race theory (CRT) overlaps with this. In recent months, Fox News and other right-wing outlets have repeatedly amplified claims that it groups under the umbrella of CRT, like that schools are teaching children that being White is definitional and a cause for guilt. Activists on the right have intentionally ballooned the meaning of CRT to include all sorts of allegations about the purported overlap of race with educational curriculums, and the response from the left has evolved from pointing out that CRT is not actually being taught to agreement that some efforts to increase diversity awareness in schools are misguided.

This response, while justified, tends not to address two key problems with the current debate. The first is that there’s no evidence that efforts to increase educator or administrative awareness about diversity have trickled down to students to any significant degree. There are lots of anecdotes about what teachers are being told and about specific books being read in specific classrooms, but nothing that suggests that curriculums are being overhauled to any significant extent over any large geographic region — much less being overhauled in a way that elevates the very specific and very extreme claims elevated by Fox News and others on the right, like that there are efforts to make White kids feel guilty about race.

The idea of CRT was expanded to include race and education broadly and then equated with an obviously toxic presentation of race. When someone like anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo tells Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that books that equate Whiteness with the Devil “are everywhere” and that “the evidence is out there” without actually being able to present that evidence, you get a sense for how the rhetorical playing field is balanced.

The debate plays into another popular framework in American politics at the moment. We have long prided ourselves on our opposition to authority, beginning with the edicts of King George III. Now, though, there’s been an effective effort to position the voices of authority against which Americans must rebel as any voice from government, mainstream media or academia broadly. “Wokeness” is often used as a way of describing a particular subset of what They want you to think; being described as “woke” is a way of being described as having been willingly or unintentionally hoodwinked by an Elite Narrative.

That’s how Rodgers is using it as he tries to rationalize his decision not to get a coronavirus vaccine — a decision contradicted not by elitist rhetoric but scientific evidence. Carville’s use is more focused on the element of race, with his suggesting not just that his party should shift its rhetoric away from discussion of the subject but that it should be less focused on the subject in general. One common response to this, of course, is that the party is being associated as obsessed with race not simply because of its rhetoric but because of how the right is framing its rhetoric. Warner, replying to Bash, pointed out that he didn’t support “defund the police,” as was the case with nearly all Democratic candidates and politicians. It was the Republicans and right-wing media, not Democrats or school officials, who were elevating the issue of race in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, he added.

Rodgers’s deployment of the term seems to be an increasing one, a use that is often just a shorthand for “what annoying leftist scolds want.” It’s about a sense that a group on the left is demanding that you change who you are and what you do. This is partly rooted in actual efforts to reconsider American history and to change how we talk about race and gender. It is also largely rooted in false perceptions about the scale of those efforts and the unanimity of what the efforts look like, false perceptions stoked by a political right that has benefited from amplifying racial and cultural insecurity among White Americans.