In late August, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made headlines with a questionable statement. “Florida is the state where ‘woke’ is going to die,” he said at a Republican Party event in his U.S. state, celebrating a slate of conservative school election victories.
Given the governor’s policies over the past few years — including hostility to anti-COVID measures such as vaccines and masking — DeSantis’ Florida is indeed a prime destination for anyone wishing to die. But that statement is more than just a catchy soundbite. Rather, it is a deliberate distortion of the reality of “woke” activism and history, and an attack on both the concepts of justice and equality that underpin the awakening. and against those who advocate making these ideals a reality.
The terminology of being “awakened”—awakening to a new awareness of the world and particularly the oppressions around us—has a long tradition in vernacular African-American English. The term has been used by black musicians for nearly a century, from 1930s blues singer Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter to 21st century hip-hop and neo-soul artists like Childish Gambino and Erykah Badu. The term’s more overtly political overtones were popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement during campaigns in places like Ferguson, Missouri, before being embraced, or co-opted, by non-black activists in real life and on social media. .
It was around this time, in the 2010s, that the “anti-reawakening” began to emerge. At first, the main criticism, from both left and right, was directed at people who used “woke” rhetoric in a performative or insincere way. In recent years, however, the very concept of awakening has come under attack, particularly from conservatives.
While the likes of DeSantis, who created his political brand by fighting battles in the ongoing culture wars he himself created, or Fox News host Tucker Carlson are among the “anti-reawakening” voices strongest in America, they are far from the only ones. Right-wing advocates across the country — politicians, pundits, even social media trolls — have spent the past few years demonizing awakening as a destructive radical ideology.
According to the GOP and conservative media, reawakening — not COVID-19, racism, violence, or inequality — is the most dangerous challenge facing America today, with “woke” ideology tied to a variety of largely fabricated societal ills. Some denounce the awakening as a new (false) religion, and even accuse it of being used to undermine traditional religious beliefs. Others condemned “woke racism,” an ill-defined critique that seems to imply that we take the concept of anti-racism too seriously and perhaps even engage in reverse racism as a result.
“Woke history” is condemned for portraying the United States and its founders in a negative light, undermining patriotism. Even superhero movies and shows are now being criticized for increasingly casting non-white male actors in lead roles, with claims that movie studios like Marvel are putting the awakening – here defined as “forced” diversity – before telling serious stories about flying people kicking robots and aliens.
In all these accusations the real concerns of awakening are lost: recognizing racist violence, combating prejudice and promoting equality. The verbal sleight of hand that has been deployed against revival is not new. The rhetorical tricks employed by conservatives have been used against many groups and ideas.
A variety of terms and phrases have been redefined and demonized by the right, ranging from specific movements like “Black Lives Matter” to general concepts like “social justice” or “fairness.” To see how effective these tactics can be, just look at an entire generation of white moderates who believe in equal rights but bristle at being called feminists.
But black activists have long borne the brunt of this redefinition, and it’s no surprise that concepts like awakening that originated in black activism have come under the harshest attack. In recent years, Black Lives Matter and critical race theory have received this treatment, as have writers and scholars such as Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi.
Non-verbal forms of protest have also undergone this distortion. American football player Colin Kaepernick remains on the National Football League blacklist, years after he began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. The reason for her protest — to speak out against police brutality and anti-black oppression — was made clear to anyone who would listen.
Yet by the time Fox News and the Trump administration finished speaking out on the issue, Kaepernick’s respectful protest had turned into a hate-filled screed against veterans and the American flag. These accusations were of course fabricated, but that did not prevent a large part of the American population from continuing to believe that the quarterback is trying to attack the most haloed institutions and symbols of the country.
Such slander has real consequences. Kaepernick has had to stay home, as athletes with less talent and more serious, even criminal, transgressions continue to take to the field. And the meaningful discussions that might have been sparked regarding anti-Black violence continue to be clouded by debates about patriotism and acceptable forms of protest.
These results are, of course, the point. Modern American conservatism is well adept at hijacking substantive reform debates by creating arguments about language. For all the criticism directed at the left for enforcing “political correctness” (the same criticisms that have simply been repackaged to condemn “awakening”), it is largely the right that has engaged in police talk .
The global disinformation campaign against progressivism, with anti-revivalism as its latest manifestation, is surprisingly calculated and effective. The first step was to delegitimize a concept by redefining it, equating it to its most extreme manifestations, or simply lying about what it actually means. So the awakening has become left-wing hysteria over pronouns or attempts to redefine superheroes as non-white men, rather than genuine attempts to fight discrimination or increase inclusivity in society. .
The second step was to use this fabricated outrage to caricature and condemn supporters who use this terminology. So people like Hannah-Jones, Coates and Kendi have been dismissed by the right as “ultra-left” or “racing hustlers”.
Now people like DeSantis have succeeded in the third step of the process, passing laws that make progressive talk illegal, like the (possibly unconstitutional) Stop WOKE Act he pushed through the Florida legislature. By eroding the actual definitions of ideas, such as critical race theory, these laws are already producing a widespread silencing effect on people, such as educators and librarians, in Republican-controlled parts of the country.
And so, allowing the law to shape the conversation about awakening has more than a semantic impact. Conceding the “revival” debate has tangible and oppressive consequences for people across the country.
And that’s why it’s so important not to just drop terms like woke (or feminist or Black Lives Matter) as problematic or tainted. Words have meaning, and there is immense power in the ability to control those meanings. The exercise of this linguistic power is an increasingly powerful tactic of those who want to roll back progress within this country.
To prevent such regressive policies from becoming even more powerful, it is important to retain and defend terms, such as revival, that symbolize much-needed progress in this country. And defending these concepts means we must be aware of the full implications of conservative attacks on them.
We must stay awake, even in the face of attacks on the concept of awakening itself.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.