If you live in Florida or listen to the news, you have almost certainly heard the term “woke” and might wonder what it means. The short version is that it now means everything and nothing. The longer version involves looking at how “woke” has been captured and transformed into a rhetorical weapon.
The most extensive use of “woke” is by the governor of my adopted state of Florida and many of his fellow Republicans. What does DeSantis mean by the term? It seems to mean whatever he wants it to mean. In what follows, I will look at the rhetorical weaponization of “woke.”
In the beginning, “woke” meant “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” Through use, the term gradually expanded to include the broad areas of identity politics and social justice. While originally seen as a positive term, “woke” has been redefined in increasingly negative ways.
Around 2019, it began to be used ironically and to mock people for insincere performative activism and virtue signaling. It is also now taken to mean “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.” While somewhat vague, this definition does have a set meaning. However, “woke” has been subjected to a fascinating rhetorical modification to make it mean everything and nothing. This can be traced back to Christopher Ruffo redefining “critical race theory” in March, 2021: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory. We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
What is fascinating about what Ruffo did is that he did this in public, on Twitter and you can still see the tweet today (assuming Musk has not destroyed Twitter). In effect, he told everyone that he is engaging in a deceit without any concern that doing so would undercut his efforts. This seems to entail that he thinks that his audience is in on the deceit. This is analogous to a con artist Tweeting that they are running a con; this only makes sense if they think the marks do not care or will happily go along with the con.
What Ruffo is doing here is creating a Balloon Man. The Balloon Man is a variant of the Straw Man fallacy in which the target is redefined in an excessively broad or vague manner. This expanded definition, the Balloon Man, is taken to include a wide range of (usually) bad things. This Balloon Man is then attacked, and it is concluded that the original is defective on this basis. This Balloon Man redefinition of “critical race theory” proved successful but it was soon engulfed by the term “woke.” That is, critical race theory is now generally presented as but one example of what is “woke.”
This move could be called creating a Zeppelin Man. Zeppelins are airships that contain multiple inflated cells, so they can be seen as being made of multiple balloons. As a rhetorical move or fallacy, this would be a matter of making a term that has been made into a Balloon Man part of another term whose meaning has also been redefined in an excessively broad or vague manner. A fallacy would occur when this Zeppelin Man is attacked to “prove” that the original is defective. For those who are aware that the term is now a Zeppelin, using it in this way is an act of bad faith. But it has numerous advantages, many of which arise because the vagueness of the definition also allows it to perform other rhetorical functions. The redefinition also involves other rhetorical techniques. This is all done to weaponize the term for political purposes.
A key part of the redefinition of “woke” involved the rhetorical device of demonizing. Demonizing is portraying the target as evil, corrupt, dangerous, or threatening. This can be done in the usual three ways: selective demonizing, hyperbolic demonizing, or fictional demonizing. Selective demonizing is when some true negative fact about the target is focused on to the exclusion of other facts about the target. Hyperbolic demonizing involves greatly exaggerating a negative fact about the target. Fictional demonizing is simply lying about the target. For example, “critical race theory” (which now falls under “woke”) originally referred to a law school level theory about the impact of race in the law. But, in addition to being made into a Balloon Man, it has also been demonized as something awful. Likewise for the other terms that now fall under “woke.” The defense against demonizing is to critically examine such claims to see if they are plausible or not.
The right has also been scapegoating wokeness by blaming it for problems that it did not cause. The most recent example is the bizarre efforts of some conservatives to blame the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank on wokeness. As would be expected, no serious person gives this any credence since the bank collapsed for the usual reasons we have seen over and over. Presumably this is intended to misdirect people from the real causes (a Red Herring) and to “prove” that wokeness is really bad. While not the most absurd thing pushed by the right, Americans should feel both insulted and offended by this latest attempt at deceit. After all, even the slightest reflection on the matter would show that the idea that a major bank failed because of wokeness is absurd. As such, unless these people think that their base is onboard with their lies, they clearly think their base is ignorant and stupid.
Some of what is included under the redefinition of “woke” includes dog whistles. One version of the dog whistle is to use coded language such that its true (and usually controversial or problematic) meaning is understood by your intended audience but not understood by the general population. This is analogous to how slang terms and technical terms work; you need to know the special meanings of the terms to understand what is being said. Another version of the dog whistle is a form of innuendo. A word or phrase is used to suggest or imply something (usually negative). If you do not know the special meanings or the intended implication, you are excluded, often intentionally so. For example, “Critical Race Theory” has been assimilated into “woke” but the phrase is now a dog whistle.
Interestingly, the term “woke” itself functions as a dog whistle. Since anyone can technically be woke (and straight white men have claimed to be woke), someone using the term as a dog whistle has that all important plausible deniability. The dog whistle aspect of the redefinition is a critical part of weaponizing “woke.” After all, making something into a dog whistle means that:
- Your fellows know what you mean, and they approve.
- Your foes know what you mean, and they are triggered.
- Critics can seem silly or crazy to “normies.”
- Plausible deniability that “normies” will accept.
- Can onramp “normies.”
The vagueness and demonizing enable the term “woke” to reference what could be called a Universal Enemy. This is a rhetorical technique of broadly defining something in negative ways so that it can serve as an enemy for almost anyone. If the universal enemy is successfully created, then the term can be effectively used to persuade people that something (or someone) is bad simply by applying the term. If pushed enough, this can also be a form of Begging the Question: arguing that something is bad by defining it as bad. If people see “woke” as whatever they think is bad and they think that something is woke, then they will think that it is bad—no actual proof needed. A defense against this technique is to recognize that the redefinition of the term is vague (and the product of demonizing) and not fall for the technique. Crudely put, if “woke” just means “bad”, then it is effectively vacuous.
The vagueness of the redefinition of “woke” also allows for assimilation of anything that expresses criticism of “woke”, whether the critic agrees with the redefined term. For example, someone might create a video or blog that is critical of “woke” defined in terms of performative activism or virtue signaling but also believe that people should be alert to injustice and discrimination. But their video or blog can simply be assimilated and used as “evidence” that “woke” is bad. One common tactic used to assimilate is Headlining: using the title of something that seems to support what is being claimed. For example, if the imaginary blog or video was titled “Wokeness is Bad for Justice” then it could be used to “prove” that the redefined wokeness is bad for justice. The defense against this is to check the critic’s definition of “woke.” If they are not using the redefined definition, then their criticism does not automatically apply. In the fictional example given, the creator of the blog or video would presumably not support their work being used that way.
The vagueness of the redefinition of “woke” allows it to function as a weasler—a rhetorical device that protects a claim by weakening it. Attacking such a vague definition is like attacking the fog with a stick—it is so diffuse that there is nothing solid to hit or engage with. If the critic does manage to have some success with one aspect of the term, the user of “woke” can simply move on to another aspect and claim victory because the critic cannot possibly engage everything that falls under such a broad redefinition (see the Appeal to Silence). The defense against this is to recognize when the definition of a term is so vague as to be effectively without meaning. While pointing this out to the person using it in bad faith is unlikely to deter them, you would at least show that you have not been deceived by them.
In closing, the redefining and weaponization of “woke” is a clever move by the right in terms of crafting a rhetorical weapon to use in a campaign of deceit and division. However, a recent poll shows that most Americans have not accepted the redefinition of “woke” and see being woke as positive. Most Americans also seem to have far more important concerns than the Republican’s war on woke, so it is not clear that this will be a winning strategy in 2024.