The definition of ‘woke’

The term has meant many things to many different people, but it can still be defined.

Ron DeSantis was recently asked to define ‘woke.’ Some on the Left mocked the Florida governor, saying he couldn’t define it.

Donald Trump agreed that nobody could define it, saying last week, “I don’t like the term ‘woke’ because I hear, ‘Woke, woke, woke.’ It’s just a term they use, half the people can’t even define it, they don’t know what it is.”

How did DeSantis try to define it? He said, “We know what woke is, it’s a form of cultural Marxism. It’s about putting merit and achievement behind identity politics, and it’s basically a war on the truth. And as that has infected institutions, and it has corrupted institutions.”

DeSantis is not wrong, exactly. What he described is all pieces and parts of wokeness. Trump isn’t wrong either, in that the definition of woke remains unclear for many. Still, DeSantis’s critics aren’t even wrong that his answer is incomplete and unsatisfactory.

But there is a definition: Woke is the rejection of liberalism.

It’s not the whole definition because it doesn’t encompass every parameter within the many debates over wokeness. Yet it is a consistent definition that immediately notes that the current Left is significantly different from the old one, and also explains why this new Left seems so much more radical.

The old one was liberal. In a liberal society, I have a point of view and so do you. We both respect each other’s right to have our points of view. We discuss and debate.

According to the woke, there is only one point of view: their own. Counterpoints are not tolerated. Some just haven’t ‘woke’ up to their correct view. Dissenters should not exist. They should be canceled.

This glaring illiberalism is key in defining woke. Again, this definition might be too simple for some discussions, but it is the consistent thread that runs through virtually every debate about wokeness across the ideological spectrum.

Frequent woke critic Bill Maher touched on this in March, “I would categorize ‘liberal’ as different than ‘woke.’ Woke, which started out as a good thing, alert to injustice, who could be against that?”

“But it became sort of an eye roll,” he continued. “Because they love diversity except of ideas, and that’s not really where we should be.”

“I think it’s this collection of ideas that aren’t building on liberalism but very often undoing it,” Maher added.

In March, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn tackled the subject, citing the timeline of wokeness as emerging among young leftists around 2012.

Cohn compared traditional liberals as exemplified by former President Barack Obama to the new intolerant woke leftists. He writes, “While liberals always held strong beliefs, their righteousness was tempered by the need to accommodate a more conservative electorate. Mr. Obama generally emphasized compromise, commonality and respect for conservatives, even when he disagreed.”

“As Obama-era liberalism became dominant, a more righteous progressive discourse emerged — one that didn’t accommodate and even ‘called out’ its opposition,” Cohn explained. “This was partly a reflection of what played well on social media, but it also reflected that progressive values had become uncontested in many communities with a high percentage of college graduates…”

He continued, “The liberal value of equal treatment prevents identity-conscious remedies to injustice; the liberal goal of equal opportunity accepts unequal outcomes; even freedom of speech allows voices that would offend and thus could exclude marginalized communities.”

“Is this a definition of woke? No,” Cohn concluded. “But it covers much of what woke is grasping toward: a word to describe a new brand of righteous, identity-conscious, new left activists eager to tackle oppression, including in everyday life and even at the expense of some liberal values.”

I would argue that “woke” comes at the expense of the primary liberal value: Freedom of speech and expression.

In June 2022, New York Magazine’s Sam Adler-Bell tried to talk his fellow lefties out of continuing to embrace the illiberalism that defines wokeness.

“Wokeness refers to the invocation of unintuitive and morally burdensome political norms and ideas in a manner which suggests they are self-evident,” Adler-Bell posited.

Here’s a female athlete explaining why it’s unfair for biological men to compete against her. The woke audience members believe it’s absolutely self-evident she’s wrong – “this is basically a joke of a talking point” says a trans woman – and aren’t having it.

At all:

Adler-Bell continued, lecturing, “In some cases, this means we speak in an insular language that alienates those who haven’t stewed in the same activist cultural milieu.”

You don’t say?

“At other times, it means we express fealty to a novel or unintuitive norm, while suggesting that anyone who doesn’t already agree with it is a bad person.”

This trans man thinks anyone who mistakes him for a woman is a bad person.

Totally normal behavior.

On racial division, Adler-Bell tries to explain to woke lefties who assume everyone who hasn’t arrived at their positions is automatically a white nationalist, well, that’s probably not a good strategy.

Adler-Bell writes, “To take a pervasive example, it seems contradictory to suggest that America is a deeply racist country with many unexorcised demons, which manifest intricately in individual instincts, institutional structures, and communal customs — and, at the same time, insist that new and more sophisticated anti-racist norms should be inherently legible and agreeable to anyone but a fool or a white nationalist.”

He added, “This doesn’t mean we should be any less relentless in pursuit of instantiating more rigorous anti-racist values, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to do so simply by treating them as self-evident or haranguing those who don’t already share them.”

You think?

In using Maher, Cohn and Adler-Bell’s attempts to define ‘woke,’ I’m citing three non-right-wing sources who have all arrived at similar conclusions about woke being a rejection of liberalism.

When asked what the definition of ‘woke’ is, some version of this should be the first answer. Then follow with everything else one might say as pertaining to the particular context.

When DeSantis calls woke “a war on the truth,” he is correct, but should start by noting that the woke side only recognizes one “truth.” Wokesters don’t want a discussion. They want fealty.

Woke means the rejection of liberalism.

When DeSantis says woke “has infected institutions, and it has corrupted institutions,” he is correct, but that infection and corruption’s primary toxicity is taking liberalism out of institutions altogether. Universities used to be the place for debate, for example. Not anymore.

It’s worth repeating: woke means the rejection of liberalism.

When Trump says it can’t be defined he’s wrong: Woke means the rejection of liberalism.

First and foremost.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for