With his crusade against so-called “woke ideology,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis enacts a politically motivated ideological mission with all the fervor of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, declaring Florida “where woke goes to die.” A likely 2024 presidential run suggests that DeSantis’ anti-woke agenda could have national impact.

DeSantis’ communication director defined “woke” as ”progressive activism.” His general counsel said it came down to a belief in the presence of “systemic injustices” in American society. Never mind the harsh realities of our racial and gendered injustices. DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act and war against “woke ideology” in the College Board’s African American studies Advanced Placement course were obviously designed to suppress those facts.    

DeSantis claims the course pushes “a political agenda,” whereas he advocates “teaching kids facts and how to think critically.” Really? The College Board’s deciding to sideline Black Lives Matter and add “Black Conservativism” while dropping progressive Black authors hardly seems apolitical, despite insisting their changes weren’t politically motivated. 

As a college professor, I’m pleased that reporters have scrutinized the many ways “woke” gets used. Unfortunately, they haven’t subjected “ideology” to similar scrutiny, though its meanings are more diffuse. This isn’t just an academic word game.    

Webster’s defines “ideology” as “theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program.” Like “woke,” which conveys praise or blame depending on one’s political leanings, “ideology” embodies diverse meanings and sentiments, though it’s often used pejoratively. These ambiguities benefit those who deploy linguistic sleights-of-hand to conceal inconvenient truths.  

In “On Inhumanity,” philosopher David Livingstone Smith takes the charging ideological bull by the horns, proposing a singular definition of “ideology” that captures its condemnatory connotations: “Ideologies are beliefs that have the function of fostering oppression.” They’re replicated because they promote the oppression of some to the benefit of others.    


In his blog, Smith illustrates with white supremacism, writing that believing “Africans are inferior to Europeans, and that Africans benefited from being enslaved … was reproduced because it legitimated the oppression of Black people and thereby enabled the beneficiaries of the ideology to accumulate wealth.”  

Smith maintains that white supremacist ideology is reproduced not because white supremacists think believing it is advantageous to themselves (though it is), but because they’ve wrongly convinced themselves that their racist claims are undeniably true. They think this so-called “truth” necessitates and legitimates action to supposedly “liberate” themselves from perceived minority encroachments.  They think they’re defending the world’s ostensible “natural order,” making them immune to scientific findings that contradict these beliefs. 

Whatever way we judge Smith’s definition of “ideology,” his explanation for the replication of white supremacism fits DeSantis’ anti-woke ideology. It certainly gives DeSantis political advantage with MAGA Republicans’ antidemocratic, oppressive aspirations – a fact that he deploys cunningly. By pairing “woke (whose meaning before the political right’s appropriation of it indicated awareness of racial and social injustices) with “ideology” (which is often used to denigrate any view one disagrees with), DeSantis pulled a political rabbit out of a linguistic hat. Voila! Anything “woke” is bad.  

Using Smith’s definition, the racial and gender (“woke”) topics that DeSantis suppresses aren’t ideological precisely because their purpose is to educate and thereby liberate, not to oppress.    

When DeSantis says education entails learning to “think critically,” he seemingly advocates a liberal educational agenda that encourages questioning all views. But DeSantis’ efforts to suppress facts about systemic oppression and ways to combat it – efforts that reflect his participation in “cancel culture” – aren’t conducive to liberty.  

Although DeSantis heralds critical thinking, its achievement requires grounding conditions that encourage free thought, allowing students to engage whatever material interests them with all the questions they can muster.  DeSantis’ moves are antithetical to those conditions. They reflect an ideology that by definition oppresses many and advantages his own political ambitions.  

We mustn’t be fooled by political word tricks that target progressive policies. Because democracy depends on an educated populace, regressive policies that harm our students harm us all, including residents of purple and even blue states.

With DeSantis’ sweeping anti-woke ideology replicating itself in copycat legislation across America, none of us is safe from its authoritarian consequences. If we think otherwise, we play into the hands of America’s proliferating illiberal, anti-woke forces. 

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