Misusing words drains them of meaning

August 23, 2023 3:00 am

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently used “woke” seven times in 26 seconds in an Iowa speech disparaging whatever he thinks the word means. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The last two Nebraska governors, whose political symbiosis has been well-documented, also share an intense dislike for critical race theory, or CRT, the ill-defined, often misunderstood premise generally meaning that institutional racism is baked into our systems and policies. See red-lining, Tuskegee (airmen and experiments) and a recent rash of voter suppression efforts for details.

The governors’ beef is that any study of CRT will pit one race against another, making it racist. To date, neither of them — one of whom is now a U.S. senator — nor any like-minded members of the current Nebraska Legislature or the State Board of Education has produced evidence of such cause and effect.

Like “woke,” CRT is part of a growing number of words and phrases used in government and politics with alarming imprecision — intentionally or otherwise. The result is that some words have become wooly catchalls to further a particular point of view, their true definition notwithstanding. See the previous president and “fake news” for details.

Words have power. Misusing them carries consequences.

Two byproducts of such word assassination are related to CRT: First, those who oppose its study often, surely missing the irony, try to ban it where it’s not being studied, i.e. the University of Nebraska. Also, the advent of books that detail the history of slavery or African-American studies are being removed from libraries or classrooms. 

Apparently not content with banning books, now we’re banning ideas. 

To wit: Florida now insists its schoolchildren learn how the enslaved benefited from subjugation and servitude, that the yoke of oppression, torture and the daily specter of being lynched had its pluses. The Nebraska Legislature’s  Education Committee chairman agreed at a recent hearing, saying “… we all benefit from our backgrounds.”

In Arkansas, students taking AP African-American Studies will not be able to earn AP credit for the class. According to the Arkansas Times, Gov. Sarah Sanders instructed the state’s education secretary to rid any curriculum of CRT or the truth about slavery.

Last January, the aforementioned Education Committee chairman proposed a law — without actually using the term critical race theory — that would ban books and ideas about race and the history of slavery. Under such a law, Nebraska’s schoolchildren would be deprived of an accurate view of the American story. For details, see the unerring nonsense of “alternative facts.” 

You can draw a straight line from any of the above outcomes to those who consider critical race theory as something other than what it is: an obscure thesis studied primarily in graduate schools. Instead governors, school boards and legislators foster fear and loathing based on a misunderstanding of the term.

Now detractors throw around CRT or any study of slavery as some well-regarded synonym for reverse racism, a delusion that threatens to permeate further the nation’s aggregate curricula.

Whether we arrived here through ignorance or intentionality, CRT has lost its meaning and whatever muscle mass it had to move us forward.

Regular readers of this space may recall I have defended wokeness, asking why those who bemoan and belittle being woke aren’t so themselves.

Woke shows up in the 1920 exhortations of Marcus Garvey for Black Americans to become more socially and politically conscious. Blues legend Lead Belly, in a spoken afterward to his 1938 song “Scottsboro Boys,” advises Blacks when traveling through Alabama to “best stay woke and keep their eyes open.” More modern usage has accompanied Black Lives Matter protests and a general call for addressing systemic injustices all Americans face.

Now, however, “woke” has come to mean anything those on the right or elsewhere deem as unsavory. Woke devotee Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently used “woke” seven times in 26 seconds in an Iowa speech disparaging whatever he thinks the word means. 

So now we have something called the “woke agenda,” apparently heard at a summer hearing of the aforementioned Education Committee. 

When the word means any bad thing you choose, assigning it to political opponents or contrary ideas is easy.

Like critical race theory, woke has been murdered, no longer meaning what it did for awakened Black Americans fighting for legal and cultural changes.

There’s more: Among other words and phrases misused into oblivion for political purposes are “do the research” (Pro tip: It’s more than a Tik-Tok video or a talk show host); “patriot,” (Who decides?), and “weaponize” (Such tough talk).

Playwright Tom Stoppard said words “can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more.”

See CRT, woke, et al., for details.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.