A Viral Moment on the Definition of “Woke” Reveals All You Need to Know About the Right’s Attacks
Conservative author Bethany Mandel’s struggle to define the word “woke” spoke volumes.
“This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral.” Right-wing commentator Bethany Mandel’s clairvoyance proved stronger than her ability to define a word she, in her own words, wrote a whole book chapter on.
Mandel’s comments came Tuesday on Rising, a show hosted by Briahna Joy-Gray and Robby Soave, after Gray asked Mandel to define the word “woke.”
“So, I mean, woke is,” Mandel began. “Sort of the idea that, uh, um … I-,” she continued, conceding the moment’s potential for virality. “Woke is something that’s very hard to define, and we’ve spent an entire chapter defining it,” referring to a book about “the Left and their woke indoctrinators” that she co-wrote.
“It is sort of the understanding that we need to re-, totally reimagine and re-, re-, redo society in order to create hierarchies of oppression,” she said before pausing. “Sorry, it’s hard to explain in a 15-second sound bite,” before Gray assured her she could take her time if she wanted.
The right has come to amorphously attach the word “woke” pejoratively to everything from deregulated collapsing banks and derailing trains and electric stoves to LGBTQ people’s existence and even the cold, hard facts of how Breonna Taylor was killed. In other words, it’s not just an umbrella term for the already hollow, oft-complained-about “political correctness.” It just means “anything I don’t like” (and some of those things might not be things I can say out loud—unless I want to get canceled by the Woke Mob).
This differs greatly from how the term was used in the early twentieth century, as part of the Black struggle and calls for greater political and social consciousness. Since then, the term “staying woke” has come to refer to a broader awareness of one’s place within a system; some people have even used it in humor, joking about “staying woke,” for example, about tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories.
On Wednesday, after her comments did indeed go viral, Mandel claimed that Gray allegedly made comments “demeaning parents in general in colorful and nasty terms” on a hot mic before the show went to air. Mandel said that as a mother of six, the comments apparently threw her off her game; she noted that this was not an excuse, just a reality of being human.
She went on to finally offer what she considers the “actual definition” of “wokeness” a day after her verbal stumble. “Wokeness,” Mandel claimed, is “a radical belief system suggesting that our institutions are built around discrimination, and claiming that all disparity is a result of that discrimination. It seeks a radical redefinition of society in which equality of group result is the end point, enforced by an angry mob.”
Not only is her definition steeped in right-wing cultural angst, it’s so broad that you wouldn’t be blamed for imagining it could cover other groups, like say the January 6 rioters.
But the issue here is not just about Mandel using “woke” as a catchall term to mean “everything she doesn’t like.” It’s not even that she fumbled with the definition; all people deserve generosity, and by no means should anyone be expected to be perfect all the time.
But Mandel’s self-assurance in offering an “actual definition” of woke falls short of exhibiting any level of humility that would welcome such generosity. Beyond revealing how hollow the right-wing’s deployment of the word “woke” really is, it displays the amount of self-righteousness needed to offer a made-up definition of a word rooted in decades-long Black struggle and used (even as a joke) to mean awareness about anything bigger than oneself.
It’s not just that the modern right uses the term to conceal deeper prejudices or inflammatory beliefs, it’s that the use embodies a deep-seated ego that is difficult to break through. How can someone be genuinely debated when they do not have an ounce of intellectual humility?