How the right-wing weaponizes "wokeness"

The GOP systematically uses language that obscures denotation and advances connotation

By Magdi Semrau
Published May 5, 2021 3:42PM (EDT)
Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOX News)
Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOX News)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Right-wing operatives have recently mounted a campaign against the idea and practice of "wokeness." The word has the pretense of a neutral reference, but is increasingly used to debase and belittle the underlying meaning of anti-racism and anti-bigotry. Similar rhetorical tactics have a long history in conservatism, as they allow the GOP to obscure policy objectives, while simultaneously evoking negative and positive emotions. Overall, the GOP benefits from imprecise language soaked with connotation. Unfortunately, journalists and some liberals keep falling for it.

In the case of "woke" and "wokeness," conservatives are undermining a positive idea with derisive figurative language. Consider a converse example, in which the Republicans advanced an ugly principle through positive framing: waterboarding. It was described as "enhanced interrogation" by conservatives, and that was repeated by the press corps. However, if you actually describe what's involved in waterboarding—making a person temporarily experience drowning—Americans respond with repulsion. Conservatives knew this, so they chose to be evasive. "Enhanced interrogation" is more palatable than both "torture" and "simulated drowning."

Language can be exploited to great political effect. Words convey meaning two ways. By denotations, the actual real-world reference of a given word or phrase. And by connotations, the feelings they evoke. The GOP systematically uses language that obscures denotation and advances connotation. The case of "wokeness" is not so different from "enhanced interrogation," but, in this case, the underlying denotation—awareness of social injustice—is good whereas the connotations are unfortunately negative. As they did with "enhanced interrogation," conservatives are using figurative language to obscure deeper principles and create a fog of feeling, rather than reason.

The GOP's use of such language—figurative, imprecise, but laden with connotation—gained prominence in their backlash to the civil rights movement. After a certain point, it was of little benefit to conservatives to explicitly state they were opposed to equal rights for Black Americans, so they adopted fuzzy terms. This strategy was famously outlined by the late Lee Atwater, a chief architect of modern GOP rhetoric:

You start out in 1954 by saying, '[n-word], [n-word], [n-word].' By 1968 you can't say '[n-word]'—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff, and you're getting so abstract. Now, you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … 'We want to cut this' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "[n-word], [n-word]." 

Here, Atwater specifically argued that, to advance racism, conservatives should embrace abstractions, given that racial slurs no longer confer electoral success. This tradition of linguistic manipulation continues to pervade our discourse. From "illegal alien" to "states' rights" to "politically correct" to now "woke," the Republicans have perfected the art of language devoid of concrete specifics, but charged with big feels. 

That language has this power presents a challenge for journalists. Reporting should be informative and neutral. Yet with increasing frequency, the press corps uncritically adopts whatever linguistic frame has currency. The result, predictably, is neither informative nor neutral. What do Republicans actually mean when they criticize "wokeness?" It's unclear. Yet journalists repeat their rants without clarification.


Magdi Semrau

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