Smoking ZeppelinThanks to the endless culture war, those who want to keep up with the political language need to learn the definitions and re-definitions of terms and phrases. Recent examples include “critical race theory”, “DEI” and “woke.” This essay focuses on “woke.”

For some folks on the right, the word “woke” seems to mean everything and nothing. An excellent example of this is the governor of my adopted state of Florida. What does DeSantis mean by the term? It seems to mean whatever he wants it to mean. But “woke” has a long history that predates the latest battles of the culture war.

In the beginning,  “woke” meant “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.” Through use, the term gradually expanded to include broad areas of identity politics and social justice. While originally seen as a positive term, “woke” has been forcibly redefined in increasingly negative ways.

Around 2019, started to be used ironically to mock people for insincere performative activism and virtue signaling. The negative definition became “to be overly politically correct and police others’ words.” While somewhat vague, this definition has a set meaning. However, “woke” has been subjected to a 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.”

It is notable that he did this in public, on Twitter (now X) and you can still see the tweet (assuming Musk has not destroyed X). He told everyone he was presenting disinformation about CRT without any concern that this would undercut his efforts. This seems to imply he thinks that his audience is in on this dishonest redefinition. This is like 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 it.

What Ruffo did is create a Balloon Man. This 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 usually now presented as but one example of what is “woke.”

This move could also 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. 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.

Some on the right have also been scapegoating wokeness by blaming it for problems. One 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 . Presumably this is intended to misdirect people from the real causes (a red herring) and to “prove” that wokeness is bad. 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 must 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 like 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, someone using the term as a dog whistle has plausible deniability if they are called out. That is, they could claim that since a straight, white man can be “woke”, the term “woke” cannot be a racist dog whistle. In some cases, a person could be making this claim in good faith, thus providing cover for those making it in bad faith.

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.”
  • In can have plausible deniability that “normies” will accept.
  • Can onramp “normies.”


The vagueness and demonizing enable the term “woke” to refer 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 by “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 with no proof needed. A defense against this technique is to recognize  that 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 content that is critical of “woke” defined in terms of performative activism or virtue signaling. This person might believe that people should be alert to injustice and discrimination, but their content 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.

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. 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, polls show that most Americans have not accepted the redefinition of “woke” and see being woke as positive. While the use of “woke” seems to have dropped off from its peak, it is still employed. But, just as “political correctness” before it, the term will fade away and be replaced by a new term that just means “what the right does not like.”