Woke Political Opinions and the Suppression of Speech

By Laurence Houlgate, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Reprinted with permission.

The Stop WOKE Act

On April 22, 2022, with the approval of Governor Ron DeSantis, the Florida legislature passed a bill that makes it illegal to publicly voice three opinions (ideas, beliefs, perspectives): (1) Some ethnic groups are inherently racist, (2) A person’s status as privileged or oppressed is determined by their race or gender, and (3) Discrimination is an acceptable way to achieve diversity in education and business.

DeSantis named the new law the “stop WOKE act” because (1), (2) and (3) are political opinions mainly spread by the far left of the Democratic Party, and (according to DeSantis) all woke political opinions are liberal or far-left and should be suppressed.

It came as no surprise that the WOKE act was soon struck down as unconstitutional. Tallahassee U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said in a 44-page ruling that the act “violates the First Amendment” and is “impermissibly vague.”

The First Amendment of the Constitution says “Congress [and the states] shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” My first thought when I saw the judge’s ruling was whether Governor DeSantis and those in the Florida legislature who voted for the act had carefully read the First Amendment. Most of the legislators went to law school. Did they not take a course in Constitutional Law and read Justice Hugo Black’s powerful admonition that when the Framers wrote the words “shall pass no law,” they meant “no law“?

There are two questions about freedom of woke speech that philosophers might ask: First, what does “woke” really mean? Second, aside from the constitutional issues, are there any plausible moral reasons for suppressing woke speech?

What is Woke Speech?

The word ‘woke’ has taken on a new meaning in the last decade.  People are said to be woke if they are “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)”  (Merriam-Webster). Opinions and ideas are woke if they are about important facts and issues that make people be aware and actively attentive.

It makes sense to say that the ideas and perspectives of many great philosophers were woke in their time.  Consider Socrates’ opinion that he is the wisest person in Athens because he is the only one who knows that he knows nothing (Apology);  Plato’s idea that only philosophers should rule the city-state (Republic); John Locke’s idea that an absolute monarchy is a logical impossibility (Second Treatise of Government); Rousseau’s idea that man is born free, but is everywhere in chains (The Social Contract).  Each of these ideas meets Merriam-Webster’s loose criteria for being woke.

Although the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘woke’ uses racial and social justice as an example of an important perspective or issue, the quoted definition says “especially issues of racial and social justice,” not “exclusively issues of racial and social justice.”  This leaves plenty of room for other ideas or perspectives (for example, issues about abortion law) because the definition says nothing about what makes any idea or perspective ‘important’ other than “awakening” lots of people. But what is important to me may not be important to you.  This is especially true about political and religious ideas.  I am woke if I embrace the idea that women should have full control over their bodies, and you are woke if you deny this. All that matters is that our ideas are important, whatever they may be.

The broad Merriam-Webster definition of “woke” has been challenged recently by Florida governor Ron DeSantis.   DeSantis does not want his conservative political and cultural views to be referred to as woke.  Instead, he uses the word ‘woke’ in his speeches as a negative word. For DeSantis, labeling an idea or perspective as ‘woke’ is like labeling a jar of arsenic as poisonous.  And this alone is sufficient for him to loudly declare that woke perspectives are wrong and should be suppressed.

Should Woke Speech be Suppressed?

This is where John Stuart Mill and his famed 19th- century book On Liberty (1859) enters the debate.  If Mill was alive at the time the stop WOKE act was being debated in the Florida legislature, he would have vigorously argued that there no moral justification for making illegal the woke speech cited in (1), (2) and (3).

Mill’s argument for this is set out in chapter 2 of On Liberty (“Liberty of Thought and Expression”). Without going into a lot of detail, here is one of Mill’s arguments against the suppression of speech:

(T)he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race …If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

Applying Mill’s argument to the (alleged) woke opinion #3 that “discrimination is an acceptable way to achieve diversity in education and business,” Mill’s first task would be to get the Florida legislature to admit that this opinion might be true.  Mill writes that “to deny this is to assume our own infallibility.”

If it is admitted that no legislator is infallible, then it is possible that woke opinion #3 is true.  If it is found to be true, then those who believe that it is false will be “robbed” by the Woke act of the opportunity to “exchange error for truth.”  Although there are some politicians in our society who think it is a good thing to get others to believe a lie, this is usually good only for the politician and not for the populace at large.

On the other hand, if the woke opinion is false, then silencing the promulgation of the opinion and any debate about it ultimately robs the populace of the benefit gained from the “clearer perception and livelier impression” of the truth as it collides with the so-called erroneous woke opinion. This happens when we are forced to think critically and defend our ideas.

But none of this will happen if woke perspectives are silenced.  Instead, non-woke political opinions will become dogma.  Mill writes that citizens will eventually forget the rational basis for the approved non-woke opinions and they will revert to “the manner of prejudice, …[thereby preventing] the growth of any real and heart-felt conviction from reason or personal experience.”

Perhaps reversion to “the manner of prejudice” about their non-woke political opinions is what Governor DeSantis and his Republican loyalists want for the people of Florida.

Is this what Floridians want?  Is this what you want?

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References:

“What is the DeSantis Stop woke Act?” https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/diversity-inclusion/3608241-what-is-desantiss-stop-woke-act/

“Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks DeSantis Stop Woke Law. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/08/18/federal-judge-temporarily-blocks-desantis-stop-woke-law-00052768

On Liberty. 1859. John Stuart Mill.  Hackett Classics edition (1978). Hackett Publishing Company. 1978.

Understanding John Stuart Mill: The Smart Student’s Guide to Utilitarianism and On Liberty (2017).  Laurence Houlgate, Kindle edition (Amazon).

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6 thoughts on “Woke Political Opinions and the Suppression of Speech

  1. The three opinions listed at the beginning of the woke piece are interesting, if absurd. I don’t know what Mill would make of any of it, his utilitarian dogma notwithstanding. This, for me, exemplifies my own notion of contextual reality, that is, a reality made up as we go. I think, although I cannot prove, that postmodernism let the djinn out of the bottle on this. Supposing the charge that all ethnicities are discriminatory were true, what would that matter? The distinction, the only one of importance, is that discrimination matters when it has been ruled unlawful. Regardless of who you are or how discriminatory you may be, if you are breaking no law, it is your business. Period.

  2. Not surprising considering it coming from the crowd that brought us: “My way or the highway, America, love it or leave it” and a belief in the Nazi propaganda message– if you repeat a lie often enough people will believe it. Ergo, it becomes truth. It seems we will have to endure this silliness for some time to come, before more of us ‘woke’ folks eradicate this nonsense. I’m thinking about a better quote: “The truth will set you free.”
    Deal with it!

  3. As a non-American born and raised in not-America, I was somewhat surprised to read that the Florida legislature had, “passed a bill that makes it illegal to publicly voice three opinions (ideas, beliefs, perspectives)”.

    Does this mean that were I to make my way to some location in the State of Florida, and express one of the three opinions you list, that I would immediately be arrested by the local constabulary and thrown into some dark and dank dungeon?

    From reading your sources this does not seem to be the case. Rather, the legislation in question bars “mandatory workplace trainings (sic) about race or sex that could make some people feel guilt or anguish.” (theHill) Therefore, I suspect that the inestimable JS Mill would be inclined to approve of the law insofar as what it forbids is compulsory courses. He might, however, be inclined to wish to examine the details of the matter (the legislation and the court’s decision) more closely before proceeding to cite either dictionaries or works of philosophy.

  4. My own impression, based on strictly casual examination of the media, is that “woke” is take to mean “far left” by much of the population. The right understands it to mean “commie racist socialist extreme left”. The center understands it to mean “strong views about the evils of racism and capitalism”. And the far left takes it to mean “the gospel truth”. I suspect that the word has a life expectancy of perhaps a decade.

    My personal opinion is that most of the ideas advocated as “woke” by the far left go too far. I am certain that “woke’s” characterization of race relations is way off the mark. Its characterization of capitalism is dead wrong. Its characterization of environmental issues is schizophrenic: while rightly terrified of the threat of climate change, its prescriptive measures for attenuating the magnitude of the threat won’t work well, and its rejection of nuclear power is simply hypocritical.

  5. Right on. Virtually nothing in public affairs is more important than free speech, and both political parties (i.e., the duopoly) are guilty of censorship, whether censorship of so-called “woke” speech, on the Republican side, or of alternative narratives to the Democratic narrative of the “unprovoked” Russian “invasion” of Ukraine.

  6. Suppose I said to you (any you, any where) that the woke thing is a smoke screen, a ruse for anyone wishing to promote the interests, preferences and motives of a conservative ideology? I am not attaching any other labels here, because ideology, in this sense, is not a political party. The same goes for those opposed to critical race theory. People, still living, who rejected change because of interest, preference, motive AND generational inertia, find ways to hide their contrary views in plain sight. There are differences in the narrative ( read that: rhetoric), but the IPMs are the same. In the United States, there has always been rejection of rights, for someone, on some level. I have watched this for most of my life. At bottom—and there is one, beneath all those turtles—any notions of a homogenous, raceless population are rejected. It is status quo for conservatism. Anything else is ineffable twaddle, as JS Mill and others may have said.

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