Rhymes with ‘Joke’: A Word that Already Meant Nothing Now Means Even Less

Posted in: Politics

The political right has long relied on empty phrases that, endlessly repeated, could be counted on to convey their dislike of liberal ideas without in fact bothering to engage with those ideas. For decades, their favored all-purpose insult was based on so-called political correctness (or PC), where “Oh, you’re just being PC” ultimately carried exactly as much content as, “You’re such a poopy-head!”

Several years ago, these reactionaries added “cancel culture” to their arsenal of duds, responding to any criticism of their policy views by complaining that they were being somehow negated, which could be stretched to any length: “I said that immigrants are the reason crime is going up, and you cited statistics showing that that’s not true, which just proves that you’re trying to cancel me!”

I have written about these trends occasionally over the years, both on Verdict (here and here, for example) and on Dorf on Law (among many examples, here and here). In the almost ten months since my most recent attempts to make sense of this mess, however, something truly interesting has happened. Rather than treating claims of PC or cancel-culture-ism as mere background noise, occasionally to be brought out and used strategically, right wingers have decided to frame everything—and I mean everything—around their newly favored empty insult: woke.

At this point, it is nearly impossible to go a day (or even an hour, it seems) without seeing a prominent Republican politician or some other conservative figure screaming about wokeness. Indeed, at least one Republican has evidently decided that it is possible to run for president simply by declaring that his state is “where wokeness goes to die.” As one who is currently a resident of that state, I cannot verify or deny that claim, because of course there is no such thing as “wokeness.” Like its predecessors, PC and cancel culture, it merely means “liberal stuff that I’m going to sneer at and dismiss with an empty insult.”

Or am I being unfair? Is there in fact a specific meaning to this overused word, or at least something specific enough to make its use not entirely gratuitous and meaningless? Sadly, the answer is no. Even so, there are some interesting lessons to be learned from at least one near-miss in the attempt to put some substance behind this deliberately substance-free epithet.

“Woke Chocolate”? Really? Plus, Why the Obsession with Pronouns?

A week ago, my YouTube feed (which is, of course, littered with advertisements) included an embedded ad for a chocolate bar made by a company that I had never of, with the advertisement itself sponsored by one of the more notoriously extreme right-wing websites. The ad advised us to “stop eating woke chocolate that hates you.” I initially thought that this was parody, but I saw a similar advertisement a few days later, at which point I remembered that this had recently become another flash point in the right’s endless battle against modernity.

Apparently, Hershey’s—the profit-seeking multinational corporation—noticed a few years ago that their name happens to contain the words “her” and “she,” which they then used as a cute and clever hook for a one-off advertising campaign every year on International Women’s Day. This is roughly the same thing as the transit system in Columbus, Ohio, deciding to emphasize the happenstance that “bus” appears in that city’s name (“Ride the ColumBUS”), or a comedy venue in Nebraska naming itself the OmaHA Club.

Now that the right has decided that everything they hate is to be swept into the “woke” category, however, their idea is apparently that Milton Hershey’s company, founded in 1894 and with a current market capitalization of roughly $50 billion, is “virtue signaling” and can no longer be trusted. Even more amazingly, the objection is not merely that Hershey is vaguely embracing women’s rights but that the company “hates you.” It hates you because … it joins in a mild celebration of women?

Of course, everything exists in context, and the larger context is that the right—and this very much extends beyond the American right to include the global authoritarian movement, where even non-native-English speakers like Hungary’s “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orban thrills American conservatives by condemning wokeness—has become apoplectic about pronouns. Why? Because non-conservatives started to have the decency to allow people to decide how they want to be described.

Put in that anodyne way, it is nearly impossible to see the problem, because we give people the right to label themselves all the time. For example, my father was a Presbyterian minister who had gone beyond the usual level of education needed to be ordained, ultimately earning a Ph.D. in theology. People in his church, however, did not always call him Dr. Buchanan, with some calling him Reverend Buchanan and others simply calling him Mr. Buchanan. When I asked him about that, he said that none of those labels were wrong, and it did not bother him either way. He allowed, however, that such things could matter to others, and he would always refer to colleagues in whatever way they preferred. The person being described is the one whose feelings matter.

But because it is the LGBTQ+ community that is finally receiving the respect of being allowed to decide—as my father did for himself, and as so many of us take for granted in countless ways—how other people should refer to them, the culture warriors on the right are letting their bigotry flag fly. For months, it seemed that their every speech began with a variation on this now-classic moment of trolling: “My name is Ted Cruz, and my pronouns are ‘kiss my ass’!!” Sick burn, Ted! And we knew that that particular non-joke had run its course when Twitter’s tragicomically unfunny new owner wrote that “my pronouns are prosecute/Fauci.” As actual comedians say when a joke fails miserably: Woof!

Again, however, Hershey’s had not even started their occasional ad campaign with queer issues in mind, because they were simply doing the bare minimum to identify with women in a way that narrowly avoided being mere tokenism. The right’s culture warriors, however, are willing to assert that that mega-corporation “hates you” because it kinda/sorta seemed to say something that anti-gay-rights and anti-women’s rights people would prefer not to hear.

And this is hardly the only example of the right’s attempt to relabel everything that they hate as “woke.” They have told us that the US military is woke, that the FBI is woke, that sports leagues are woke, that universities are woke (of course), and on and on. Amusingly, they were upset when the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the classic rock album “Dark Side of the Moon,” by Pink Floyd, included the original cover art showing a prism breaking light into the colors of the spectrum—a rainbow. Pride. Woke! (This last example reminds me of a manufactured controversy coming out of my original home state of Ohio in 2008, when a conservative troll complained that Barack Obama had supposedly created “O” flags that looked too much like the US flag. The problem? That is the official Ohio state flag!)

Another Republican who is running for president recently claimed that “[w]okeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down,” an assertion so absurd on its face that it usefully clarifies where the conversation has now moved. As I wrote at the beginning of this column, they might just as well be saying that “everyone we disagree with is a poopy-head.”

Does “Woke” Mean Anything? Could It?

When “woke” and its predecessors (political correctness and cancel culture) were first introduced into the social discussion, there was at least a rough sense of what those terms might convey. PC was supposedly “the language police” harassing people for their outmoded word choices, and cancel culture was people suffering disproportionate consequences for violating social norms. The basic idea was that the left was being somehow censorious and intolerant, turning shifting cultural norms into a weapon against the right.

That claim carried more than a bit of projection from those on the censorious and intolerant right, however, which might be why PC and cancel culture never quite became all-purpose insults. After all, the right is very much about policing people’s language (as the Hershey’s story above demonstrates vividly), to the point where “conservative political correctness” is easy to identify (such as referring ungrammatically to “the Democrat Party” as an example of conservative virtue signaling). And of course, the right is all about canceling everyone and everything that it opposes. (Part of their problem is that they are merely a vocal minority, so they generally fail when they attempt to cancel things—but not for lack of trying.) The hypocrisy and emptiness were more than a bit much, but it was not a particularly big deal so long as it hovered in the background.

Promoting the word “woke” was initially little more than a re-branding of those earlier terms, but it has occasioned an expansion of the culture wars into all areas of the public conversation. PC and cancel culture never stayed within those relatively uncontroversial definitions, either, but “woke” has truly changed the game. In a recent hearing led by House Republicans, for example, here is a partial list of what they condemned for woke-itude: remote work for federal workers, paying interns, and providing career assistance to the partners of members of the military.

That is, because “woke” means nothing, it can mean anything and everything. This was true when I wrote about this subject in 2021 and 2022, but the process subsequently accelerated until it reached its own singularity, where, rather than having a real discussion, Republicans prefer merely to say: woke, woke, woke, woke, woke.

And sadly, people who should know better allow themselves to be pulled into the void, such as a decidedly liberal columnist for The New York Times who casually used the word “woke” three times in one column (saying, for example, that many comedians “direct their frustrations at woke culture”). In that columnist’s defense, one could say that at least she was referring to the not-entirely-devoid-of-content original idea—the one in which woke is merely a pithier word describing changes in expectations about word choices—but that is a rather weak defense in an environment where the right has turned that one four-letter word into a long, unfunny joke.

Earlier this week, Republicans’ efforts to smear everything with their new favorite word led them to claim that the run on Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) was caused by that bank’s supposed obsession with wokeness. To be clear, this is a bank that was used by, among others, one of the most politically aggressive right-wing billionaires in the world (who had the good luck, I suppose we can call it, of getting his deposits out the day before the bank failed). But sure enough, even a plain-vanilla bank run is now, by Republicans’ reckoning, happening because a capitalist institution is being too woke—and, we thus must assume, “hating you.” (Or maybe that is only for chocolate.)

In an article describing those Republican attempts to use SVB in its culture wars, a Washington Post reporter called “wokeism” a “loosely defined concept that conservative critics use to describe policies related to climate action and diversity initiatives.” It is fair to say that “loosely” is doing a lot of work in that sentence, but that extremely generous phrasing at least tries to ground the concept in something that would allow us to say that some things are woke (and thus that everything else is not-woke) based on something other than “whatever the right is angry about today.”

As it happens, however, we do not need a writer from the mainstream media to define the right’s new favorite word. The governor I mentioned above, the one who has built his brand by being against “the woke agenda,” was asked what the word means earlier this year. His staff reportedly responded that “the term ‘woke’ [is] ‘the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them,’ and said [their boss] doesn’t believe that theory.”

So, do we at long last have an actual definition? Of course not. That governor, along with everyone else on the right, clearly believes that there are systemic injustices in American society that need to be addressed. They think that Disney is too woke, which meant that the system was unjustly giving that company benefits that the state government needed to take away. They want companies to be forbidden from taking account of any diversity matters when making investment decisions, and they therefore want to address the supposed systemic injustice by which companies are allowed to make their own judgments about where to invest their money. The system used to allow companies to decide whether to require their employees to meet public health requirements, but that too was not to be tolerated.

The heavy-handedness and hypocrisy of the “party of free enterprise” telling private profit-seeking businesses what to do are notable, of course, but what is especially odd about all of this is that systemic injustices are in fact something that should elate people who are hyper-vigilant about finding people and institutions that “hate you”: systemic explanations, after all, remove the notion of blameworthiness—and thus hate—from the individual.

For example, this past January, when yet another Black man was beaten to death in an encounter with the police (this time in Memphis), the perpetrators of the murder were themselves Black. One writer explained “that problems of race and policing are a function of an entrenched police culture of aggression and dehumanization of Black people more than of interpersonal racism.” The problem is thus not necessarily animus so much as “the system and the tactics.”

Why is that not good news to the anti-woke people? They have passed laws making it illegal to teach children in ways that might make them feel “anguish” for being White in a society that is filled with racial injustice, so it should make them ecstatic to be able to tell children that the problem is larger than person-on-person bigotry. Systemic explanations are good! Yet they reject systemic racism out of hand.

We are, then, unfortunately back where we started. When people on the political right finally try to define “woke,” we learn that their definition is so broad as to cover everything—including everything that those people like.

There is an old joke about lawyering: “If you don’t have the law, just hammer the facts. If you don’t have the facts, just hammer the law. If you don’t have the law or the facts, just hammer the table.” Today’s conservatives, both in the US and abroad, have simplified the joke: “Just say WOKE!” And hope that no one notices there is nothing there.

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