Don’t say “woke” and other idiocy

Posted on March 22, 2023

Here we go again. The rightwing adopts absurd messaging, it dominates the conversation for a time, and then their leaders move on to other, similar absurdities. The directors of the rightwing noise machine know what they’re doing, but do you?

In his classic book “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” George Lakoff wrote:

When we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV. He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook. That gives us a basic principle for framing, for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.

So, for heaven’s sake, stop repeating the latest rightwing language. Don’t repeat, “woke” or “Critical Race Theory” or “ESG” or “cancel culture” or “culture war” or “groomer.” They’re all stupid but effective ways to deflect a discussion of politics and public policy away from real, rational issues, like wages, benefits, debt, healthcare and the environment to vague, emotional battle-cries.

If there is one thing that we at the Public Leadership Institute urge the most, it is to be proactive not reactive. Decide how you want to frame the debate and then adopt a series of messages and push a series of policies that evoke that frame. Reject the rightwing language and inject your own.

Does that mean to ignore the rightwing when they say “woke”? Pretty much, yes.

One way to respond is something like: “That’s crazy. How does that help people in [insert your state/city/county]? How does that [insert three issues like—fix our roads, improve our healthcare, or protect our quality of life]? This is what’s important: [insert your overall message like—how do we get things done for our communities]?”

If you’re in circumstances where you believe you have to answer about “woke,” say “This is nonsense. Give me real examples and we can discuss those.” Ignore the vague larger “issue” and confine yourself to the necessarily-bigoted examples. Then, as quickly as possible, pivot the discussion away from those and to your proactive message frame.

Why are you scared of “woke,” anyway? This language is aimed squarely at the conspiracy theory-believing base. You will never get their support. Ignore them. At the same time, this kind of language alienates persuadable general election voters.

Consider a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll. When Americans were asked “Thinking about what it means to be woke, which of the following comes closest to your view, even if neither is exactly right?” 56 percent answered “To be informed, educated on, and aware of social injustices” (that is, 78 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of Independents, and 37 percent of Republicans), while only 39 percent answered “To be overly politically correct and police others’ words” (that is, 18 percent of Democrats, 45 percent of Independents, and 56 percent of Republicans).

You see, Ron DeSantis isn’t emphasizing the word “woke” to win the general election, it is to win the Republican primaries.

The same poll also casts light on the details of the “woke” attack. It found that, contrary to the rightwing messaging, 72 percent of Americans (89 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Independents, and 46 percent of Republicans) support “Teaching the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the United States in public schools.” And only 21 percent of Americans support “State governments passing laws that ban certain books from school classrooms and libraries.” 70 percent of Democrats and even 44 percent of Republicans “strongly oppose” such book bans.

Rightwing codewords are shortcuts allowing politicians and pundits to engage in ignorant bigotry without being specific. CRT and BLM are essentially substitutes for the n-word. Groomer is mostly a substitute for the f-word. Soros means evil Jewish people. And to their base, “woke” simply means liberal.

When you feel like you should explain the reality of these codewords to the MAGA people, just snap out of it.


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