A video went viral this week of conservative author Bethany Mandel drawing blanks, mid-interview, when asked to define the word “woke”.
Embarrassing though it was, such a lapse wouldn’t normally matter — except that Mandel has just co-authored a book on the very topic, entitled Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation.
Graciously, Newsweek gave Mandel the opportunity to pen a mea culpa. In that column, she conceded that being asked to define the w-word “was a fair question; after all, it’s the centrepiece of my book’s premise”.
Mandel also provided some human context around her humiliating stumble — which included a full parenting schedule and what she describes a panic attack brought on by unkind comments made off-air by one of the hosts prior to the interview.
Even so, online critics have suggested that Mandel’s gaffe is proof that “woke” is a bogeyman, and that conservatives are guilty of using the label as an intentionally vague, catch-all pejorative for “things I don’t like”.
To be sure, woke is a word with a hotly contested meaning.
Etymologically, the adjective arose in African-American vernacular English as far back as the 1940s, as shorthand for being awake to systems of racial prejudice and discrimination. This happens to be the definition preferred by most digital dictionaries.
We could say this is the woke definition of the word “woke”.
However, as wokeness has evolved from critiquing “the system” to effectively becoming the system — becoming a new, intolerant, ubiquitous secular religion — an alternative definition has also arisen.
Arguably, the alternative definition is now far more common — and therefore accurate, since it is popular usage that determines the definitions of words.
What is this alternative definition of “woke”? What did Bethany Mandel try, but fail, to articulate?
Her failure provided a timely opportunity for conservatives and other sceptics of wokeness to offer their elevator-pitch definitions for the word.
Cultural critic James Lindsay has probably spent more time than anyone critiquing wokeness at his website New Discourses. In response to the Mandel kerfuffle, Lindsay tweeted:
Woke is Critical Consciousness, which means “knowing” how everything is racist, sexist, transphobic, etc, and constantly denouncing it and doing activism. Simple. Learn to see it. Name it clearly.
Another to offer a definition was political scientist Wilfred Reilly, who has previously weighed in on this topic when it was (also previously) claimed that “woke” was a right-wing slur rather than a definable word. He re-tweeted an old post of his which stated:
Wokism is the belief that (1) all of society is currently and intentionally structured to oppress, (2) all gaps in performance between large groups illustrate this, and (3) the solution is ‘equity’ – proportional representation w/o regard to performance.
Seth Dillon, owner of the Christian satirical site The Babylon Bee, had a more polemical take:
The most succinct definition came from author and businesswoman Jennifer Sey, whose career as CEO of Levi Strauss & Co was all but destroyed by the woke mob. Writing for the New York Post, Sey provided the definition in her op-ed headline: “Define woke? Sure: It’s reducing all problems to oppressor vs. victim”.
Republican presidential primary candidate for the 2024 election Vivek Ramaswamy gave his definition on camera:
So it turns out that wokeness — which is essentially the political correctness, identity politics or social justice of prior decades in hyperdrive — is actually very simple to define.
Now if only we could get woke ideologues to define the word woman.