Woke isn't easy to define which gives the left room to cheat

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

You may have seen today that folks on the left are making hay over a TV appearance in which Bethany Mandel was asked to define “woke” and stumbled a bit. Here it is presented by Bethany herself.


She went on to offer an explanation (not an excuse, she said) for that slip.

And then she offered a definition.

There are things you could quibble with. I might have used the word “equity” in that last sentence but she sort of spelled that out by saying “equality of group results.” The radical belief system part of this would certainly apply to people like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo and their many imitators. It might be worth adding that this belief system is radical in the sense that it seems aimed at toppling and supplanting classic liberalism, including ideas like the importance of free speech, the virtue of colorblindness etc. But maybe that’s too in the weeds for a brief definition. The latter part of the definition (the angry mob part) seems to describe how these views often play out on college campuses and online, i.e. shouting people down, making threats, attempting to get people fired or deplatformed, vandalism or even violence. The woke are often vicious toward anyone who isn’t 100% in line with their views.


I think the first time I ever really noticed someone using it was when Deray McKesson would use the hashtag all the time. He was even arrested once in a shirt that said #staywoke.

The right picked up on that as something the far left was calling itself and over time it became associated with a particular strain of ideology described above. But woke took off and quickly became a kind of shorthand.

These days I see people throw the word woke around a lot. Sometimes all it means is leftist or progressive. Sometimes it’s an assumption about someone’s motives that seems to be in advance of any proof (though not always wrong). Even if we start with a good definition, there’s a lot of fuzziness around the edges of the word, but I think that’s normal to some extent. It’s just how language works.

English has a lot of words that started off as brand names for one specific product but which eventually became a generic way to refer to a whole class of products.

In the corporate world, if a company’s product is popular enough, it risks something called genericization, which is when the public associates the brand name with the generic class of product itself.

That’s the fate that befell Kleenex. Although Kleenex is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Corporation, for many consumers, the word has become interchangeable with “tissue.”

Other brand names that have fallen victim to genericization include Google, Taser, and Xerox. Even common words like kerosene and escalator were once trademarked.


Something similar has happened with the word woke. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to give a 10 second summary of what it means these days especially if you’re someone who knows a lot about what it means as I’m sure Bethany Mandel does. It’s a word which has evolved over a very short period of time. It went from someone attuned to social justice to a right wing critique of someone who believes in a critical race theory and seeks to undermine/supplant classic liberalism to a kind of generic word for left-wing in about 9-10 years.

So let’s concede the word is used a lot and sometimes in a sloppy way. And that creates a perfect opportunity for people on the left who are eager to downplay the existence/impact of wokeness. It makes it easy for them to muddy the waters further by claiming people using the word don’t know what it means. We’ve seen this same rhetorical game play out with Critical Race Theory. People would point out that CRT (identity politics and anti-racism) were percolating in schools and corporations and the left would reply CRT is a legal theory that’s only taught in law schools!

You can play the same game with woke. Just pretend there’s either no such thing or that it’s all a rhetorical gimmick. For instance.


As I pointed out on Twitter, this is cheating. The example he uses to prove that Mandel isn’t using her own definition when she criticizes specific cases of wokeness is Victoria’s Secret hiring Megan Rapinoe as one of their new spokespeople.

Granted Rapinoe is a famous athlete but it’s cheating a bit to leave out the fact that she’s a famously outspoken left wing athlete. She kneeled during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. She complained the women’s team wasn’t paid the same as the men’s team. In other words, Rapinoe is arguably claiming disparities are caused by discrimination and trying to pursue group equality. She’s woke.

Does that mean Victoria’s Secret went woke? To some degree it does. They had their pick of athletes to hire as representatives. Choosing Rapinoe says something about how they want to portray themselves.

And let’s not pretend this hasn’t been going on at many major companies, especially in the last couple years. Corporations seem to be at pains to demonstrate their commitment to social justice, at least superficially, by hiring more DEI staff and bringing in anti-racist trainers like Robin DiAngelo or Ibram Kendi. The companies themselves may not be woke but they don’t want any trouble from the people who are.

All that to say, I think some are exploiting a momentary brain fart to claim wokeness barely exists. I don’t think those claims hold up to much scrutiny. Wokeness clearly does exist and though it’s not in control of all of our institutions, it certainly is widespread in some areas.



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