Do We Have Woke and Cancel Culture Backwards?

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Woke up this morning and this was on our minds: Do we have the use of the word “woke” and the phrase “cancel culture” backwards?

Is it liberals and those on the left who are woke and employing the cancel culture? Or is it conservatives and those on the right?

The Oxford English dictionary defines woke as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines cancel culture as “the practice or tendency of mass canceling…as a way of expressing disapproval or social pressure.”

Given both of these definitions, woke and cancel culture would seem to apply more to those on the left, and to be positive or neutral in orientation. Over the past year or so, however, some Republican elected officials have taken to using those categorizations pejoratively and critically.

Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) has been a leader in the accusations against wokeness. At the Republican National Convention in August 2020, Gaetz declared that supporters of Joe Biden in the Democratic party are “woketopians” who “…will disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door.”

Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH) has weighed in on the “cancel culture.” After Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) was relieved of her House Committee assignments in February 2021 because of her support of conspiracy theories and racist social media posts, Jordan spoke out in her defense, proclaiming, “Everyone has said things they wish they didn’t say. Everyone has done things they wish they didn’t do. So, who’s next? Who will the cancel culture attack next?”

Gaetz, Jordan, and others have gone on the attack using these terms to label and malign those with whom the disagree. Here’s the interesting twist.

Given an alternative definition, the real practitioners of wokeness and the cancel culture could be seen as those on the far right who embrace Donald Trump’s perspective and polemics. If woke were defined as “alert to threats to the existing racial and social status quo” and cancel culture as “pushing back to express disapproval and in an attempt to repress social change,” those Trumpist Republicans would move to the head of that class.

The term woke has been used within the African-American community for decades to describe the need to be aware of prejudice and discrimination. The Black Lives Matter movement’s use of the hashtag #staywoke led to its increased usage and application to those of all races who recognize inequities and speak out against them.

If it was the recent racial injustice that spawned today’s woke movement on the left, it was the emergence of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate and as president that spawned the woke movement on the right. The question becomes: is Trump a symptom or a cause of wokeness?

There is no definitive research on this. But we believe the answer is both.

Trump began his rise to power by channeling the wokeness of those outsiders — primarily white and male — who felt they were losing whatever influence and status they had in American society and reflecting his understanding of their plight and prejudices back to them. After he became President, by acting as the tweeter-in-chief and rally-holder in charge, Trump used the bully pulpit to remake and amplify wokeness in his own image and likeness. In a phrase, Trump’s most ardent supporters woke him and then he woke them.

Trumpist Republicans would never believe they are members of their own woke generation. And they absolutely would never accept that they are the actual cancel culture.

They would assert cancel culture is comprised of those guys and gals on the other side and we should be scared of them, very scared of them. That’s the message that the Republican sent at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

As Aja Roman reports in his excellent Vox article, before the first night of speakers at the convention, the delegates passed a resolution which described the cancel culture “…as having ‘grown into erasing history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts and speech.” After that, the speakers, including Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), Representative Matt Gaetz, and former UN ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, all railed against the existential threats posed by the leftist cancel culture.

Therein lies the irony. The more existential threats are presented not by the left but by those in the Trumpist cancel culture who, through their actions and voices, have indicated that they would cancel, to name just a few, and not even go into the cancellation of the U.S.’s role in world leadership: the federal government; science; medicine; voters rights; immigration; the news media and free press; the truth; and democracy. Let’s look briefly at the cancellation efforts in each of those areas.

  • Federal Government: As we noted in an earlier piece, the Trump administration decimated nearly all federal agencies — most especially the domestic ones. In many cases, Trump appointed an agency head who was opposed to the agency’s mission. That appointee changed the agency’s mission, inverted its policies, and drove many competent federal bureaucrats out of the organization. His supporters who saw government as the problem reveled in this and still see it as such.
  • Science: The Trump administration was a consistent climate change denier, rolling back numerous orders of the Environmental Protection Agency. These rollbacks contributed to an acceleration of global warming but were welcomed by the businesses and workers who benefitted from them.
  • Medicine: The consequences of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of deaths and cases in the United States, speak for themselves. Great progress has been made in distributing and administering the vaccines to halt the pandemic under the Biden administration. Sadly though, it looks like the desired state of herd immunity will not be achieved because 20 to 25% of Americans — many of them Trumpists — are practicing herd impunity and say they will not get vaccinated.
  • Voters Rights: In spite of political and illegitimate claims to the contrary, this past national presidential election was a fair one. Because the wrong candidate won — due to the voters’ expression of their preference — numerous states have introduced voter suppression laws to make it more difficult for that to happen again. The Brennan Center for Justice found that as of March 24, legislators had introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states.
  • Immigration: The loudest clamor of the presidential election campaign from President Trump and his rabid supporters in 2016 was the need to build a wall to stop illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America. After becoming president, Trump paid for much of the construction of the wall in part by redirecting billions of dollars from the Department of Defense budget, even though he campaigned saying that Mexico would pay for it. Not as well noticed was the fact that the Trump administration, in its budget for FY 2021, set the number of refugees to be admitted to the U.S. at a record low of 15,000.
  • News Media and the Free Press: Early in the Trump administration, Kellyanne Conway appeared on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. She defended the White House’s false claim that Trump’s inauguration was watched by the largest audience ever by telling Todd, “…we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.” Initially, there was uncertainty as to what alternative facts were. That was clarified quickly as the President called traditional news and honest reporting fake news and issued his own alternative news as the real deal. As a result, the President’s fake news on social media and coverage on Fox News, Trump’s favorite public relations agency, became the sole sources of “real news” for his supporters.
  • Truth: It has been said that truth is in the eye of the beholder. The Washington Post Fact Checker team reports that over the course of his presidency Donald Trump made more than 30,500 “false or misleading claims.” The Trump supporters beholding those claims saw and heard all or the vast majority of them as the truth.
  • Democracy: The acceptance of distorted reality led to the Big Lie, in which Donald Trump, with no proof at all to support his assertion, claimed that the presidential election was stolen from him. That Lie led to the tragic events of January 6, with a mob of Trump truth believers storming the U.S. Capitol, after being at a rally listening to Trump and other instigators. By so doing, they wrought a state of havoc on our democracy. In spite of this, Trump persists in perpetuating the Big Lie about the election being stolen. An Ipsos/Reuters poll in March of this year found that six of ten Republicans — or somewhere between 50 to 55 million Americans — still believe the Lie.

Given its own type of wokeness and cancel culture, why are some in the Republican Party using those terms to demean and discredit Democrats and progressives, and what could be the consequences?

Writing for the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker explains that the “Republicans have latched on to ‘woke’ out of necessity. They know they need something — or someone to blame — for President Biden’s popularity and their own failings.” We believe that Ms. Parker hits that woke nail right on the head.

We believe that Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) does the same thing, on the consequences of continuing to buy into the Big Lie, in her op-ed for the Post, when she states, “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose the truth and fidelity to the Constitution.” Cheney concludes her piece by stating, “History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles and protect our freedom and our democratic process.”

Cheney paid the price for speaking the truth. On May 12, the House Republican conference chose the path of the Big Lie. Meeting in a closed-door session and by voice vote, they cancelled Representative Cheney from her position as the number 3 person in their leadership ranks.

In conclusion, in these polarizing times, words and phrases can add fuel to the flames of division or they can start a healing process. Finger-pointing, name-calling, and blame-placing is a formula for the continuing diminution of our democracy. Constructive criticism, thoughtful commentary, and collaborative problem-solving, on the other hand, can provide the platform for rebuilding.

It’s time we all woke up and realized that. It’s time to find our common ground and shared values as Americans and not our partisan islands. It’s time to be woke about what we need to do and say to bring us closer together rather than to tear us apart.

It’s time to move our country forward rather than backward. If we don’t, the United States of America could be cancelled. We woke up this morning and this was on our minds.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.