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Conservative Author Goes Full Deer in Headlights When Pressed To Define ‘Woke’

Bethany Mandel speaks into her camera during a Zoom interview.

It seems like people will call just about anything “woke” these days. Bank collapse? Woke. Casting choice some people dislike? Woke. Acknowledging that Thomas Jefferson had slaves? Woke. Some random thing liberals did? Woke!

Although the word is everywhere, it’s rare to see a journalist push back on what it actually means. So it was refreshing to see Briahna Joy Gray ask the much-needed follow-up question on The Hill TV’s morning show Rising.

While interviewing conservative author Bethany Mandel about her book with Karol Marcowicz, Stolen Youth: How Radicals Are Erasing Innocence and Indoctrinating a Generation, Gray politely interrupted her guest for clarification on what exactly she meant by her repeated use of the word.

“What does that mean to you? Would you mind defining ‘woke’? Because It’s come up a couple times, and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

For someone who wrote a whole book on the topic, Mandel seemed unprepared to actually talk about it, though. “So … I mean … woke is … sort of … the idea that um … uh … “ At that point, even she seemed aware of how bad she was making herself, and possibly her entire nonsensical movement, look, commenting, “This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.”

Sure enough, this clip was all over the internet within hours, along with a flurry of think pieces on the topic:

Although Gray offered some encouragement to take her time, Mandel threw out a scary-sounding phrase or two and then seemed to give up. “It is sort of the idea that we need to totally reimagine and redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression. Sorry, it’s hard to explain in a 15-second soundbite.”

Gray’s more conservative cohost Robby Shoal decided to throw their flustered guest a life raft. “It’s definitely something you know when you see it,” he chimed in, echoing a famous line from a 1960s Supreme Court Case about how to define pornography or obscenity.

So, wokeness is in the eye of the beholder. Glad he cleared that up! The thing is, that’s exactly how the right seems to define it. It is whatever they say it is, a vaguely pejorative sounding adjective that can be attached to whatever their leftist bogeyman of the moment is.

At least, that’s how the word has come to be used since it was hijacked by the right, but the word has been in use for about a century. It originated as a way for Black people to warn each other about racist violence and over time evolved to refer to more general awareness of racial and social injustice.

More recently, it became a convenient way for people to avoid saying what they really mean, when what they really mean could come across as bigoted. It becomes more difficult to avoid that when interviewers press them to be clear about what they mean. That’s why it’s so good to see a journalist ask the obvious follow-up questions instead of letting insidious smokescreens for bigotry slide.

Later in the interview, Mandel and Shoal came closer to the point when they discussed the “woke” tendency to “punish” people for the language they use or the views they express. Mandel said a parent should be able to complain about lessons they think aren’t appropriate without being called a bigot.

They want to be able to refuse to use someone’s pronouns, object to inclusive language in classrooms, or pull books out of school libraries without being made to feel bad about it. But they do want to make members of groups that have been victims of injustice feel bad about pushing for inclusion and respect.

It doesn’t sound that great when they’re forced to say it.

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Erika Wittekind (she/her) is a contributing writer covering politics and news and has two decades of experience in local news reporting, freelance writing, and nonfiction editing. Hobbies and special interests include hiking, dancing in the kitchen, trying to raise empathetic teen boys, and keeping plants alive. Find her on Mastodon at