Modern Day Propaganda

The Woke Are Becoming Mainstream Media’s New Favorite Straw Man

A masterclass in shooting the made up messenger

Photo by Shelley Pauls on Unsplash

A tidal wave of ink has washed over the so-called woke movement. These haughty know-it-all Gen Z social justice warriors are said to have a profound — yet never well defined — influence over the cultural conversation. Everything from cancel culture to political radicalization has been blamed on the woke.

But how influential are these people, exactly?

I’ve seen both left-leaning comedy and right-wing media criticize the woke for taking hardline stances on topics about which they know next to nothing. Most recently, they’ve been the target of pro-Israeli ire for supposedly coming out en masse on social media in support of the human rights of Palestinians.

Here’s a clip for a recent Bill Maher interview taking a stand against the Dawn of the Woke.

Yet wokeness isn’t a new phenomenon. We’re talking about mostly college-age students applying their newly acquired knowledge to take a critical look at established power structures. It’s a pattern we’ve seen in every generation.

And in every generation, those behind the power structures react.

The reaction is also familiar. Accusations of, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Proclamations of, “You’ve read about this but I’ve actually lived through it.” Cries of, “Respect your elders.”

So should young people indulge the powerful, shut up and accept the status quo?

Absolutely not. I know this statement will have many up in arms, but building awareness on social issues — which is how I define wokeness — is actually an exercise in critical thinking. The last thing we want is for the leaders of tomorrow to not participate in social debates.

What I hear most often from wokeness critics is less about substance and more about hubris. The woke are said to be critical of society, but never critical of their own opinions. Young grifters stuck in their social justice echo chamber, getting high on the Dunning-Kruger curve.

I acknowledge that trope rings true for a lot of these young people. But what do you expect? Young people tend to be overconfident and cocky — when did such a trite observation become newsworthy?

Yet take that exact sentiment and rephrase it as, “The woke are destroying our culture by taking unwavering political stances on topics of which they know nothing,” and all of a sudden you’re seen as making profound social commentary. You’re not.

You’re just using wokeness as a rhetorical tool to score cheap political brownie points with reactionary audiences.

Where such arguments get extremely pernicious is when wielded to shut down debate or push a political agenda. Let’s break down that earlier clip from Bill Maher.

First, he attributes to these woke individuals arbitrary traits that serve his argument. In Bill’s fictional universe, these woke are ignorant, hypocritical, arrogant, yet important enough to deserve a rebuttal. It’s a typical straw man argument. He’s not singling out any real person, because nobody who fits his first three descriptors holds any real political power.

Then, he attacks — which is easy, because the straw man can’t defend itself. Conveniently, none of the prominent voices speaking out in favor of the human rights of Palestinians fit Bill’s description of wokeness. That’s the point. Bill would much rather decry an unsophisticated caricature than have a debate with an intelligent human being.

Finally, Bill claims victory over an adversary that should never have been taken seriously in the first place. Make your imaginary character realistic enough and listeners will assume it’s real. By creating the illusion of giving both sides of the argument proper consideration, his final stance is legitimized. The existing power structure is reinforced, and because the opponents are caricatures, the parameters of rational debate are redefined to include only people who already agree with a pre-approved opinion.

I’m other words, media figures have created a “woke” label, assigned derogatory traits to that label, and are sticking it onto the forehead of anybody who disagrees with them.

That’s the power of a straw man argument when used by people in positions of authority and influence.

I don’t mind comedy that takes aim at the woke — I’ve even tried my hand at some. People who think too highly of themselves are usually fair game.

Where I take issue is when the criticism spills out of the realm of satire and is used as an ad hominem dismissal of legitimate arguments in our broader cultural conversation. The woke aren’t a lobbying group. They’re not a powerful political movement. They don’t even have a clear political agenda. They’re just a loosely defined group of people who tend to get ahead of themselves on complex social issues.

Whenever you hear a popular media figure justify a political position in opposition to the woke movement, ask yourself if you can put an equally popular name and face to their rhetorical adversary. If not, what you’re listening to isn’t a good faith argument. It’s propaganda.

Travel | Humor | Language | Society. Writing out of passion. Tokyo-based polyglot with a degree in human rights. Find me on Twitter and Instagram @alexstwrites.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store