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?
“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).