Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Those Silly Words With Meanings

I was strolling through the comments on the Kanye West fiasco - more of the same; you wouldn't be interested unless you're just obsessed with comments like I am - when I came across another tangent that caught my attention. It's not surprising that West is being accused of racism, though the accusation at this point is a bit overblown. There was nothing overtly racial about this particular incident - and West is usually pretty lacking in subtlety - but his past behavior does lend weight to the accusation. Maybe so. Maybe no. Impossible to prove, one way or the other. What caught my attention, though, was a specific comment on the subject:
"Pointless to post at this point, but traditional definitions yada yada yada … “ism” has to do with positions of power. So, for example, a woman cannot by definition be “sexist” toward men, because the woman is not in a (traditional) position of power."
What? Really? As a writer, I find words to be important and try to stay current and knowledgeable on their meanings and I don't recall the -ism suffix having anything to do with "positions of power". As always when there is a disagreement on meanings, I don't settle for trusting memory. I look it up. Dictionaries are wonderful things.
According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, the actual definition of the -ism suffix is:
1 a : act : practice : process b : manner of action or behavior characteristic of a (specified) person or thing c : prejudice or discrimination on the basis of a (specified) attribute
2 a : state : condition : property b : abnormal state or condition resulting from excess of a (specified) thing or marked by resemblance to (such) a person or thing
3 a : doctrine : theory : religion b : adherence to a system or a class of principles
4 : characteristic or peculiar feature or trait
Do you see anything in there about "positions of power"? Because I don't. Tell me, please, what positions of power Buddhism would be about. Doesn't work, does it?
Let's try that dictionary again. Another definition? Well, despite using "sexism" as an example, the person who made the comment was actually arguing about the definition of "racism", so let's look that up. Again, according to Mirriam-Webster:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2 : racial prejudice or discrimination
And again, no mention of "positions of power". You can try this experiment with just about any dictionary you care to check (the internet makes this wonderfully easy) and you will not find "positions of power" in the defining component of racism or any of the other isms people might like to discuss in this context. Why not? Because one has nothing to do with the other. Yes, positions of power often make these isms easier but the absence of power doesn't come anywhere close to making them impossible. It doesn't even make them difficult.
This wouldn't bother me quite so much - inability to properly use their own language is a hallmark of idiots and I expect it - except that this mushy thinking is often used to justify the asinine idea that minorities cannot be racist, women cannot be sexist, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth and people who insist on clinging to this false idea are the very people who prevent such isms from being correctable. If you believe that a particular race is inherently superior to another or that one race is inherently inferior to another or that race is the defining factor in all or most aspects of an individual person then you are a racist. If you believe that a particular gender is inherently superior to another or that one gender is inherently inferior to another or that gender is the defining factor in all or most aspects of an individual person then you are a sexist. If you are in a position of power then you have even more ability to cause harm with your particular ism but you do not require a position of power to have the ism.
Words have meaning, people. You can't pretend them away and you won't improve anything by trying to do so.

No comments:

Post a Comment