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In the following CNBC article the author uses the term “woke” which Merriam Webster defines as a US slang adjective meaning “to be socially and politically aware”.

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pledges to tackle immigration, ‘woke’ education policies and IRS funding.

… he said he wants to address “America-Last” energy policies and “woke indoctrination” in schools, noting that children come first and should be taught to “dream big.”

So what do the expressions “woke education/indoctrination” mean in this context? Is this usage of woke common in AmE (American English)?

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    woke means different things to different people and is different is other countries, there is no real answer to this
    – Nigel Fds
    Jan 9, 2023 at 23:35
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    @NigelFds - I didn’t expect this to be such a controversial issue. Anyway my question was quite specific as regards context (American politics) usage (regarding education and indoctrination) and country (the USA).
    – Gio
    Jan 10, 2023 at 9:07
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    I kicked this question off the hot network questions tab because unfortunately it generates an unreasonable moderation effort.
    – Philipp
    Jan 10, 2023 at 11:32
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    @Philipp - I didn’t know a mod could do that. I am not sure it is a fair thing to do. But I understand!! I’ll move the issue on META.
    – Gio
    Jan 10, 2023 at 11:34
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    @IanKemp - sorry guys for being unclear about AmE. On the site I am most active on (ELU) abbreviations such as AmE, BrE, AusE etc are very common. Thanks for your patience.
    – Gio
    Jan 17, 2023 at 14:37

7 Answers 7

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Generally when people talk about "woke indoctrination", they don't mean "woke" in its original meaning ("socially and politically aware"). It's a purposefully vague term used "to tap into and foment resentment against traditionally marginalized groups like Black Americans".

"Woke indoctrination" means teachings about diversity, equality, and the factual history of race relations in the US (including topics such as slavery, Jim Crow, etc) and how that history has shaped power structures until today.

Proponents of the "woke indoctrination" conspiracy theory are of the opinion that schools are teaching white children to be ashamed of being white and that white children are being discriminated against because of their whiteness (see e.g. this example featuring Ron DeSantis). Describing the historical and current impact of racism and discrimination is seen as a prescriptive act and indoctrination.

This is also tightly linked to the moral panic around critical race theory (a college-level framework for examining social conceptions of race; in the process of the panic, several states have restricted teaching "about race, ethnicity, or slavery in public schools").

It is part of a broader history of right-wing backlash against marginalized groups gaining civil rights. In addition to racial equality, "woke indoctrination" can also refer to teachings about the existence / history of LGBT people and other marginalized groups (see e.g. Ron DeSantis 'Don't Say Gay' bill which opposes "woke gender ideology").

"Woke indoctrination" isn't the only reference of this kind in his speech. America-Last for example is a reference to the far-right America First policy (a phrase coined by Woodrow Wilson, used by the pro-fascist America First Committee, popularized by the KKK, and later used by Donald Trump).

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    I would add one thing, which is that accusation of wokism tend to be opposite to exceptionalist views, "one nation under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all", manifest destiny and all. Exploring America's flaws (e.g. slavery, genocide of Native Americans, enduring systemic racism) makes the US look very unexceptional, and that's something that pops up in arguments against "woke education", that "America is great and don't teach my kid otherwise". Devilry such as transgender identities, it's like sex ed that teaches kid to have premarital sex, we can't have that either. Jan 9, 2023 at 15:35
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    Any answer would be better served by a link to how the term is defined or used rather than a personal interpretation. Jan 9, 2023 at 18:18
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    I've started a Meta post about the term "dog whistle". We really need to discuss this issue there
    – Machavity
    Jan 10, 2023 at 17:00
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    Do you have a reference for your claimed meaning of "woke indoctrination" in the second paragraph? The word "indoctrination" implies an action, whereas your description describes a set of beliefs, so there seems to be some incongruence here.
    – user45504
    Jan 20, 2023 at 13:34
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    Also, in your third paragraph, you suddenly refer to "woke indoctrination" as a conspiracy theory. I haven't been able to find any other reference to such a conspiracy theory here; I originally took the phrase to mean something like the forcing of "woke" ideas on others without accepting question or criticism. The link in that paragraph did not clarify anything about any conspiracy theory either; especially going by the description of the bill at end of the article, it looks like an anti-discrimination law being passed,
    – user45504
    Jan 20, 2023 at 13:34
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The term as a whole is a pejorative, generally used by those who align with more right-wing politics where there is a belief that public education and universities have been co-opted by those with different beliefs than those using the term. Usage of "woke" gained traction as used by African Americans in the 1930s, and at least initially was used to describe a state of mind where one is aware of their surroundings in areas where they might not be welcome.

Since then people began using the term "woke" to apply to other areas which amongst proponents of expanded civil rights had (generally) broad consensus, and was meant to indicate that someone was aware of issues in the world which needed fixing rather than just being content with whatever the current status quo happened to be. Due to its origins, it was generally only ever really popular for those that leaned more to the political left, leading to the present-day backlash against the term, which argues that those who are "woke" are in fact "brainwashed," and rather than being more aware of their surroundings are instead being used as political pawns to effect social change rather than actually try and solve any real problems.

How common a term "woke indoctrination" is generally completely depends on your location and where you receive your news; right-leaning news sources are much more likely to use it. It also depends on how many school board meetings you're currently going to, since there is a concerted effort in America today by conservatives to prevent certain topics from being taught in public schools. Anecdotally I feel as if left-leaning publications do not use the term "woke" very often, except in explainer pieces about the term itself. It has, at least in my opinion, always been used as slang and never really entered into formal language as such.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Jan 9, 2023 at 18:03
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There's a large number of policies here that would likely fall under this wheelhouse. I'll limit it to a couple of topics McCarthy himself mentioned, of late.

Parents as Domestic Terrorists

On Oct 4, 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a directive to investigate parents allegedly threatening school board members. The problem is it was issued mere days after a deeply controversial letter to President Biden which labeled parents as "domestic terrorists", and called on the DoJ (headed by AG Garland) to investigate them as such

As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes. As such, NSBA requests a joint expedited review by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education, and Homeland Security, along with the appropriate training, coordination, investigations, and enforcement mechanisms from the FBI, including any technical assistance necessary from, and state and local coordination with, its National Security Branch and Counterterrorism Division, as well as any other federal agency with relevant jurisdictional authority and oversight. Additionally, NSBA requests that such review examine appropriate enforceable actions against these crimes and acts of violence under the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the PATRIOT Act in regards to domestic terrorism, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights statute, the Conspiracy Against Rights statute, an Executive Order to enforce all applicable federal laws for the protection of students and public school district personnel, and any related measure. As the threats grow and news of extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings is being reported, this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult issue.

The National School Boards Association is an independent trade group (i.e. non-governmental), but the letters were widely connected in intent. AG Garland has never used the phrase to describe parents, but apparently the White House coordinated with the NSBA on the letter

In the September 14, 2021 meeting of the OSAED liaison group, they were informed there had been a meeting with White House staff that morning and that NSBA was preparing to send a letter to the President, Subsequently, on September 17, 2021, the interim Executive Director emailed notice to the state association executive directors that indicated a letter requesting federal assistance would be sent.

Many Republicans, including McCarthy, have drawn a stronger connection as a result

The other thing that comes with a new majority is you're able to hold this in administration accountable. We're able to stand up to an attorney general who goes after parents and calls them terrorists if they want to go to a school board meeting.

To make matters worse, the "poster child" of parents allegedly behaving badly is a man named Scott Smith. Smith was arrested and dragged out of a Loudon County school board meeting in an agitated state. When reporters on the Right investigated, they found that Loudon County had covered the rape of his daughter up. Incoming VA governor Glen Youngkin demanded resignations and noted the same thing

"The FBI needs to stop trying to silence parents in Virginia… and investigate this entire circumstance," Youngkin said. 

I expect to see AG Garland before the House Judiciary Committee at some point on this issue.

Curriculum - Critical Race Theory and other efforts

McCarthy directly took to CRT on his Twitter.

CRT is a bit harder to define in politics, because it has been misapplied, but let's take a definition from someone closer to McCarthy's views, for the sake of argument

  1. Systemic Racism
  2. Race Drives Beliefs and Behaviors
  3. White Privilege
  4. The System Won’t Allow Non-Whites to Succeed
  5. Equity Replaces Equality

If we come at it from this standpoint, McCarthy makes more sense. Take, for instance, the NY Times' 1619 Project (which now has educational curriculum). The criticisms of that project are instructive

On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America.

Things only go downhill from there. Jones rewrites US history to provide the viewpoint that the US was founded by slaveowners for the express purpose of African slavery. From that CRT lens, you can then redefine everything in terms of white oppressing blacks. That's not merely their interpretation. It's literally what Jones originally said.

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

This goes well beyond education, in the minds of those like McCarthy. And it's on-par with other influential voices like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, who both espouse the same CRT-esque viewpoint. And there's a case to be made that this viewpoint is actively being taught in many school systems.

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    I've read this a few times, but still not sure how this answers the question "what does woke indoctrination mean?" My best reading is that simple innocent parents are being called domestic terrorists without basis, and the reason this happens is "woke indoctrination".
    – BurnsBA
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:01
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    What do either of the things mentioned in your answer have to do with "woke indoctrination"? I don't think I've ever heard any prominent ring-wing figure link "Parents as Domestic Terrorists" with wokeness (although I can't say I listen to that many of them). If anything, it's usually the left highlighting the far-right people screaming at and threatening teachers at board meetings. Also, actual CRT being taught in schools is little more than a conspiracy theory (ring-wing figures just cry CRT whenever anyone in a school mentions that racism is a thing that exists).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:03
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    I did Ctrl+F on the entire page for both "marx" and "freire" and did not find a single mention of Karl Marx or Paulo Freire, the progenitors of Woke. "Woke" is literally "critical consciousness", which is the belief that our society is built to oppress people. There are 50 years of literature of critical theorists saying this exact thing, all citing Marx and Freire. The Woke believe that it is mankind's duty to problematize everything around you until all oppression is gone. "Woke indoctrination" is coercing people into critical consciousness via shaming, canceling, threats of violence, etc. Mar 31, 2023 at 16:54
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    In tim's answer (currently the highest-rated answer here), he admits in the first paragraph that Woke's "original" meaning is being "socially and politically aware". This "awareness" that he hints at is critical consciousness. The Woke believe they have had an encounter with divinity and therefore know everything about society, so that they should be the ones in charge of it. It's a massive cult, and normal people are just now figuring that out. Mar 31, 2023 at 17:01
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"Woke" is commonly used as a pejorative primarily by right-wing Americans to refer to a wide range of left-wing policies, typically related to equal rights and avoiding discrimination(1), and to left-wing individuals who support such policies and who fit into left-wing stereotypes.

The underlying implication from the right is that these policies don't make sense or don't reflect reality, and instead they're mostly performative (people "trying to be woke" instead of really believing or caring about what they're saying) or to control others, or people teaching it are brainwashed (or that someone is just generally gross). The justification for this generally seems to be little more than something along the lines of "here is why I don't think this is true or reasonable, therefore the people saying it must be lying".

"Woke indoctrination" and "woke education" typically refers to teaching or representing ideas generally related to equal rights to children, mostly though schools, but also though television, movies and social media. It more specifically refers to the acknowledgement of LGBT people's existence in sex ed and in schools in general (most commonly), as well as educating children on the parts of history that includes racism, the existence of climate change and other science that has been politicised.

(1): I don't mean that people on the right generally claim to be against equal rights nor claim to support discrimination, but rather they oppose left-wing policies aimed at promoting those things, because they don't believe those policies actually do that. I tried to make that clear in the second paragraph as well.


"Woke" originated from the left to mean "alert to racial prejudice and discrimination", and it's still used by people on the left to mean this and to mean a general awareness of and resistance to social inequalities. This is presumably derived from "awake", given that it suggests you're aware of what's happening around you.

In essence, both the left and the right may use the term to refer to similar or the same policies (the right typically uses it more broadly), but one with the implication that it's good, and the other with the implication that it's bad.

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"Woke" now is used as a pejorative by right-wing, but also liberal Americans and Britons to describe ideas and actions that are related to equality subjects, but, in their opinion, have got out of control.

To illustrate it one could use an experiment done by Peter Boghossian, James A. Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose and described in Areo Magazine, known as Grievance studies affair
During this experiment authors tried submitting bogus papers to academic journals in cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies to determine whether they would pass through peer review and be accepted for publication. The results seem quite disturbing.

  1. "Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism" - part of Chapter 12 of Volume 1 of Mein Kampf with fashionable buzzwords switched in. Article got accepted by Afilia
  2. "Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon". Article published in Gender, Place & Culture
  3. "The Progressive Stack: An Intersectional Feminist Approach to Pedagogy":
    Thesis: That educators should discriminate by identity and calculate their students’ status in terms of privilege, favor the least privileged with more time, attention and positive feedback and penalize the most privileged by declining to hear their contributions, deriding their input, intentionally speaking over them, and making them sit on the floor in chains—framed as educational opportunities we termed “experiential reparations.”
    Reject and resubmit by Hypatia

Hearing, that idea of making privileged students sit in chains on the floor hasn't got dismissed immediately as an absurd, may rise some concerns.

To expand the issue with students sitting in chains. The article:

For example, white students are unlikely to be epistemically qualified to understand the historical injustices of slavery, which presents a unique educational opportunity within a broader pedagogy of the progressive stack. On this point, experiential reparations in the classroom environment could be effected, for example, by inviting in an educational context white students to sit on the floor, or, to engage even more profoundly, to wear (light) chains around their shoulders, wrists, or ankles, for the duration of the course. My own students have found this initially awkward but highly instructive after explaining its pedagogical role and inviting them to find comfort in the discomfort of it. Similarly, male students could be instructively spoken over and skeptically questioned about their qualifications to speak authoritatively on academic subjects in order to provide insight into problems commonly and historically faced by women, inter alia, in professional and educational settings.

And the review:

The progressive stack, what it is, how it works pedagogically, and how it corrects for epistemic injustices, biases and oppression is still far from clear. I’m sure that the author has actually used this in class, so maybe some anecdotes about how this works would clarify the concepts.

What are experiential reparations? Say more about this. Also, some of your suggestions strike me as "shaming." I’ve never had much success with shaming pedagogies, they seem to foment more resistance by members of dominant groups. Can you say a bit about the parameters of discomfort? How do instructors walk a line between making privileged students feel genuinely uncomfortable in ways that are humbling and productive and so uncomfortable (shame) that they resist with renewed vigor.

Find a place for the experiential reparations. This still makes me feel uncomfortable, because it’s shame-y and I’m not sure that student can see it otherwise. Maybe say something about how shame can be overcome by sitting in discomfort. Also, make it clear that experiential reparations are part of CCI, which is an amendment to PS.

I had to look what CCI stands for, and it is Critically Compassionate Intellectualism

The Areo article summarizing the experiment can be found here

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    You didn't demonstrate that they didn't inadvertently make good points, acceptance by a journal doesn't equal making good points (but rather just that your science is judged to be sound and useful, by a handful of individuals), nor does it mean it's true (authors lying is typically found out later), just because something (Mein Kampf) is bad overall doesn't mean every word from it is also bad, and it's curious that your one point is basically "yes, it was rejected, but it wasn't rejected hard enough". The only way that would be a valid point is if they did then resubmit it, and it got accepted
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:02
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    @NotThatGuy I linked to the meaning of "Reject and resubmit". If that's not enough, here are some reviewer comments: "This is a solid essay that, with revision, will make a strong contribution to the growing literature on addressing epistemic injustice in the classroom. The focus on the Progressive Stack is interesting yet focused and it is great that the author is trying to suggest some specific approaches." 1/2 Jan 9, 2023 at 12:35
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    There are lots of low quality "academic" journals out there. It's a rather lucrative business. There also are lots of high quality journals that can get bamboozled. Witness "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" (aka the Sokal Affair), which was complete BS, but also witness the numerous articles published in physics journals about cold fusion. Jan 9, 2023 at 12:48
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    also, it's irrelevant to the question, which is what "woke indoctrination" means Jan 9, 2023 at 13:45
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    I don't see how this answers the question "what does woke indoctrination mean?" It seems to be about a reactionary response against "woke indoctrination" without explaining the terms, and without explaining how this is relevant to the question.
    – BurnsBA
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:08
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When conservatives talk about tackling: Woke education.

They do not mean preventing teaching diversity, equality, and the factual history of race relations in the US (as other answers suggest)

They mean schools should teach: we are all created equal and should all have equal rights. Treating each person as an individual and not judging them by their race or gender. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1ccW76ZRq4

They do not want to promote LGBT values in the classroom, instead prefer placing more value on the traditional nuclear family. They do not want to teach that all (white) people are inherently racist by default (as per CRT) instead treat each person as individuals based on their own circumstances and not as a collective based on their race/gender.

They want to following Tennessee legislature that passed a law banning CRT from its schools and forbidding educators from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive.” .

Additionally, America's collective attitude towards its founding fathers and its early presidents has come under scrutiny. Gone is the narrative that the founding fathers were, uniformly, admirable and forward-thinking men. The fact is that many of them were slave owners.

People on the left argue not mentioning founding fathers owned slaves is white washing history and the conservatives want mentioning this banned in schools.

People on the right argue the left have gone too far and now only focus on the founding fathers slavery and make all of history based on race, excluding all the good they did.

Many on the far-left may want to teach history like this https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

Whereas many on right want to teach history like this https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Presidents-Advisory-1776-Commission-Final-Report.pdf

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    There seems to be an inconsistency. You say that they want to teach that we are all created equal, but then say that they want to not discuss LGBT in the classroom. Isn't that making LGBT people second class? Don't those two statements conflict?
    – DaveG
    Jan 10, 2023 at 2:02
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    No. Previously LGBT was frowned upon in the classroom. Now it is being taught to be accepted and normal and in some cases, celebrated! I think what (most) conservatives want is for LGBT to be tolerated and prevent bullying. However they do not want for LGBT to be considered main stream. Obviously, every person their own opinion on this topic and there may be some on the far-right who want to band any mention of LGBT. But for the most part I do not believe that is the case. Likewise I do not think most progressives want to celebrate LGBT but media tends to highlight each side more extreme views
    – Daveo
    Jan 10, 2023 at 2:49
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    @Daveo Saying "our lifestyle is mainstream and can taught in schools, but yours is not, cannot, and is merely tolerated" is not equality, it is a class system. However, you are correct that is presented as equality.
    – Schwern
    Jan 10, 2023 at 6:03
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    CRT does not claim that "people are inherently racist by default," nor is it even taught in grade school. To the right, "CRT" is a code word for ideas they don't like, rather than the university-level academic discipline that it has been for more than four decades.
    – cjs
    Jan 10, 2023 at 7:30
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    What does it mean to place "more value" on the traditional nuclear family? Education is mostly there to tell kids facts about the world, more than to give recommendations about how they should be living. If saying "boys like girls" is okay, but saying "some boys like boys" is not okay (which is the type of thing many on the right object to), then you're not giving children the complete facts about reality, and in some cases that's going to cause a lot of problems (they may turn out to hate gay people or think that's unnatural, or they may suppress their own nature to fit in, and get depressed)
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 10, 2023 at 10:47
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"Woke indoctrination" describe teachings that overdoes "woke", takes it to extremes and end up with something just as bad as what was before "woke".

For example, they used to pay a woman less, even if she did the same work as a man. Eventually, this was seen as wrong. People "woke" up, and demanded equal pay. Equal pay was eventually granted in many places. Now "woke indoctrinators" demand that women be paid more today, because of this injustice in the past. But it is usually not the same men and women. So you get just as much injustice this way. Which is why "woke indoctrination" is seen as such a negative thing.

"Woke indoctrination" can be about any America/Europe-specific historical injustice. (Usually not injustices perpetrated by non-whites in other parts of the world.) In America, blacks were enslaved. Woke set them free, which was good. Woke indoctrination wants black privileges over whites, apparently "free" or "equal rights" is not enough any more. Similar for discriminated sexual minorities.

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    This appears to be a rant and making false claims about the goals of the movement with no evidence to back it up.
    – Joe W
    Jan 9, 2023 at 16:09
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    @JoeW This is a good answer as it explains what the term is and how it is perceived by those who view it negatively. This answer can certainly be improved by providing more observations on how the left and the right perceive it.
    – sfxedit
    Jan 9, 2023 at 19:31
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    @sfxedit and it is also making false claims about what it means.
    – Joe W
    Jan 9, 2023 at 19:32
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    This simple answer is perfectly adequate for the question that was asked. When conservatives use the term "woke indoctrination", this is what they mean. Whether this term is biased or unfair, or refers to anything that exists outside the collective imagination of the far right, is irrelevant. The OP didn't ask about that. The only criticism I have of this answer is that it doesn't say whether the term is in common usage (which the OP did ask about). Jan 9, 2023 at 19:59
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    "'woke indoctrinators' demand that women be paid more today", "Woke indoctrination wants black privileges over whites" - this is blatantly and objectively false. No-one is demanding that women be paid more than men or for black people to have rights over whites. They're demanding equal treatment. If you want to assert that that's already the case, then you can assert that (hopefully with solid evidence to back it up... which would probably be hard to find, because it's not true), but don't go and claim other people are demanding something that relies on what YOU are asserting to be the case.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 9, 2023 at 22:13

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