To Conservatives, Woke Seems to Mean Whatever They Don’t Like

So my take on wokeness, a couple weeks ago, as a “perhaps exaggerated respect for the sensitivities of others,” is not what most others mean by “woke.” To some conservatives, it means anything they don’t like or want to acknowledge, even climate change.

Salon, Amanda Marcotte, 16 Mar 2023: Why the GOP is obsessed with “woke” — but can’t define it, subtitled “MAGA can’t explain what ‘woke’ is, but that’s the point — it’s a ‘choose your own bigotry’ term for Republicans”

(Salon homepage title “‘Woke’ means nothing — that’s the point”.)

“Woke” is currently the favorite word of the right. Republican politicians can’t go more that 5 or 6 words without peppering “woke” into their sentences. Turning on Fox News, you’ll hear the word “woke” repeated ad nauseam, like a record skipping, but for hours at a time: “woke woke woke woke woke.” Everything is  “woke”: Banks. Children’s books. The military. Disney. M&Ms. Super Bowl performances. To be a Republican in the year 2023 is to spend every waking moment outraged and terrified by “woke,” certain its wokey tendrils will snake their wokeness into your brain and woke-ify you into wokeitude.

But the funny thing about “woke” is that, while all Republicans hate it, they don’t seem to have any idea how to define it. That was hilariously demonstrated in a viral video clip of conservative author Bethany Mandel falling completely apart when asked in an interview to define “woke,” a concept she wrote an entire book denouncing. Mandel couldn’t do it.

“So, I mean, woke is sort of the idea that, um…” she stammered before admitting it “is something that’s very hard to define,” and then failing utterly to get close.


The inability to define “woke” is a feature, not a bug. “Woke” is very much meant to be a word that cannot be pinned to a definition. Its emptiness is what gives it so much power as a propaganda term. “Woke” is both everything and nothing. It can mean whatever you need it to mean, and you can deny that it means what it obviously means. The ephemerality of “woke” is what makes it so valuable. “Woke” morphs into being when a right-winger needs to feel outrage and evaporates into thin air should anyone try to ask a rational question about it.


More about this particular incident at The Daily Beast, but I’ve hit my free article limit there and am not inclined to subscribe to yet another site just now.


Then there’s this in which the woman who couldn’t define ‘woke’ was interviewed last year and managed to explain what she meant by it.

Slate, Aymann Ismail, 16 Mar 2023: I Asked “the Woman Who Couldn’t Define Woke” the Same Question Last Year, subtitled “It’s more revealing to listen to her in full.”


“This is gonna be one of those moments that goes viral,” Bethany Mandel said fatefully this week on Rising, the Hill’s daily news show. She was discussing a new book she had co-authored, Stolen Youth, published by the Daily Wire’s books imprint, which purports to expose the “woke agenda” employed by the left to make kids miserable. But Mandel seemed blindsided when co-host Briahna Joy Gray asked her to explain the term Mandel uses over and over again: “What does that mean to you? Would you mind defining woke?”

Mandel fumbled. “Woke is sort of the idea that, um,” she says, before stumbling more. The clip is uncomfortable, and naturally it was posted everywhere.

And indeed, the viral video is posted right here.

Then follows an interview from last year about Mandel’s work on a series of books called Heroes of Liberty, which apparently is about deifying figures of American history by omitting anything about them that could be criticized by modern standards (like having owned slaves). And in that interview, here’s what she means by wokeness.

So, in terms of children, it’s the idea of turning them—I think my best example is the board book Antiracist Baby, and it is … hold on. I have it. I have the text somewhere. The idea that you cannot be neutral, that this is a fundamental reshaping of our society. In the lens of anti-racism, in the lens of sexuality, that is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s the idea that we’re trying to turn our kids into modern warriors in these political battles about CRT and about sexuality and climate change and all of these things.

Climate change is wokeness?? We’re doomed.


And this is relevant: that Super Bowl ad.

Salon, Nathaniel Manderson, 12 Mar 2023: Who decided Jesus needed a brand makeover? “Jesus gets us” and evangelical hypocrisy, subtitled “Evangelicals celebrated those Super Bowl ads — but they exemplify everything wrong with the evangelical church”

There’s a problem, of course: The evangelicals behind this campaign do not seem to understand even the most basic elements of getting Jesus. It turns out that the evangelical leadership’s warm embrace of Donald Trump was a bad idea, in terms of turning people toward the Christian faith. I’m sorry to say that I think the current “brand identity” of American Christianity looks a lot like Trump wrapped in the flag, with a semiautomatic rifle in one hand and the Bible (which he hasn’t read) in the other. America is certainly becoming less and less a “Christian nation,” and many evangelical Christians are panicking, believing certainly feel they are losing the cultural and political war for the soul of America. They’re right about that, frankly, and what’s more they deserve to lose.


On the other hand, most Americans seem to align with my take on what ‘woke’ means.

USA Today, Susan Page, 8 Mar 2023: A GOP war on ‘woke’? Most Americans view the term as a positive, USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds, subtitled “By 56%-39%, Americans say ‘woke’ means being aware of social injustice, not being overly politically correct.”

Fifty-six percent of those surveyed say the term means “to be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices.” That includes not only three-fourths of Democrats but also more than a third of Republicans.

Overall, 39% say instead that the word reflects what has become the GOP political definition, “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.” That’s the view of 56% of Republicans.

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