Monday, April 2, 2007

Isn't it fun to unilaterally redefine words?

I really did not intend to post about this again, but since this has my goat, and I heard that there was yet another post on defintions, I just had to.

First, I note that this new definition of racist that TG and TFS use is NOT in the dictionary and also is NOT the meaning of racist used by the vast majority of the public. If you came up to a stranger and told them that someone else was a 'racist' they would immediately have all sorts of things spring to mind, including KKK meetings and burning crosses. And yet that is not what they have redefined it to mean.

In effect, this is a unilateral redefinition of the meaning of the word, done incidentally without informing most of the public that you've done so. So when one objects, it is not out of any special pleading that my version of the word is better than yours - it is a simple recognition of the fact that the word 'racist' does not mean what they say it means. They are suggesting an entirely NEW definition of the word, entirely made up by them. The only problem is, there is an old definition, widely known, that means something entirely different and that is personally insulting. But hey, I think they like that. I think they want to insult. TFS certainly does. He calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. He certainly means it as an insult.

I'm told that TG won't make up a new word for 'Racist' because the one we have is just fine. And yet, she DID make up a new word for 'racist' because her definition is not the regular definition of the word in any dictionary I've been able to find. So I'm not asking her to make up a new definition for 'racist,' I'm objecting to her use of that word where it does not fit according to its own definition. 'Racist' is not a word that works just 'fine' as it is - because if it were, she would not have to redefine it.

Using 'racist' as a word that denotes one's personal culpability is not about denying that racism exists or power, it is about using a word in its ordinary, long-held meaning.

But beyond that, the redefinition dilutes the word and also makes it nonsensical. First, it dilutes it by calling everyone who is light-skinned a racist, making none of their individual acts matter (I just love how being in the KKK is equated to simply being white by TG - that is so ridiculous it almost can't be responded to with anything but ridicule. So I might as well go out and start burning crosses on African-American lawns now because hey, I'm a racist, and that's no different from what I usually do (sit at home and read a book)).

Second, it makes it nonsensical. It is like being white now is equivalent to being racist. In fact, that is exactly what they've done. Might as well just change the language to reflect it, right?

"Help! Police! Someone just tried to steal my car!"
"Did you get a description of the person?"
"Yes, it was a racist wearing a brown leather jacket!"
"Was there anyone else there?"
"Well, there was a non-racist person walking the other way - she might have seen something!"

See, we can just eliminate "white" from the language entirely - after all, we already have an equivalent word to use for everyone of the white "race" - just call them a "racist" and we'll all know what they mean because not only are all whites racist, but all racists are white.

And hey, here's a pop quiz for all those who follow the TFS and TG line of reasoning.
Bobby is 31 years old. His biological parents, who raised him, are both African-American, both descended from slaves. He grew up poor, but worked hard, went to college, and now has a very nice corporate job. Perhaps he would have done better were it not for his race. But he certainly did well with the hand he was dealt. Then he suddenly was struck by a strange virus. This virus had the unfortunate effect of making him lose all of his skin pigmentation, and now he looks 100% white and no one who knows him could tell the difference. Is he a racist? Why or why not? In ten years will he be a racist? Is there anything he can do to avoid it? And if so, why could not someone born with his new "handicap" not do the same thing to avoid it?

I don't expect I'll actually get an answer from either of them - they may never even read this - but I'll ask it all the same.


liberallatte said...

Hi, I came to your blog from TG's; firstly, language is a social construction and sometimes serves to strengthen the existing hierarchy, so starting an initiative to make the language more equitable is a great thing. Indeed, words like Ms. were introduced that way.

However that being said, I doubt if altering the definition of racist is an effective way to eliminate racism. I think white privileges as outlined by Peggy McIntosh certainly exist, but I don't know how significant these are. I agree with your point that the redefinition dilutes the word 'racism'; and I don't see the necessities of it. At least, if she uses the term that way, she needs to make it absolutely clear that her definition of "racist" is different from a normal one and she doesn't mean to insult every single white person for having white skin, to avoid offending white readers.

TFS's antagonising attitude doesn't help at all to build a constructive interracial relationship; in fact it is an impediment to it. I believe that the institutional oppression indeed exists, but at the same time I think the West is the least racist place in the world.

DBB said...

If you made such a statement on TG's page, I think you'll find yourself shut out or admonished for just not understanding and they'll say they don't want to have to 'spoonfeed' the 'truth' to you. Then again, maybe that is just reserved for me.

I agree there is power in language, and language does change.

Here is something I just tried to post on red jenny's page regarding this, I think you posted there too: (Not sure if this got through there or not):

First, I meant 'racist' not 'racism' though obviously the words are close. And yes, language does change over time, but my point is that 'racist' has not changed to what TG claims it has changed to - she and others have unilaterally changed it, and moreover, the change does not take into account the fact that the vast majority of people know the word 'racist' by its commonly accepted meaning only - and have something very specific in mind when it is used.

In other words, this unilateral redefinition, amongst other things, causes confusion of meaning, not exactly a good start for redefining a word. It also makes any discussion about who is a racist with a white person immediately about insulting the white person within the first sentence of the conversation, labeling them with a term that has a specific, insulting meaning. Not exactly a good way to move forward. And finally, it dilutes the original meaning of racist down into nothing. Because if every white person is a racist, it might as well be none of them. The word is reduced to nothing because it tells you nothing about the person other than the fact that they are white, which really tells you nothing at all. It is zero information. So now where it used to mean something if you called a white person a racist - now it tells you nothing.


Ok, and with regards to TFS, I don't think he wants to have a constructive dialog, I think he just wants to rail against the world, rail against all white people, and perhaps he gets a perverse pleasure watching guilty-feeling left-wingers try and bow down at his feet and beg forgiveness for their horrible crime of being white, a crime for which there is no absolution.

I agree that some institutions are racist. But it is also true that some are not. Again, painting with a broad brush against them all reduces the meaning of institutionalized racism down to nothing.

I don't know if the west is the least racist place in the world, but it certainly could be.