I get the impression that a lot of people today want to feel persecuted. They draw comparisons between themselves and groups of people historically who really were killed, enslaved, or otherwise mistreated because of various differences – race, religion, etc. And I’m not saying that people aren’t persecuted today, but, in this country, there’s really nothing that compares to what you would have seen even fifty years ago. That is to say, you don’t see widespread prejudice that is socially or politically acceptable. People who want to persecute other people tend to have to keep it within a closed group, or hide it altogether. So the country isn’t where it should be, but it’s a lot farther along than a lot of people make it out to be.
One bit of evidence of this is the fact that “racist” (or any other kind if “-ist”) is one of the worst things you can call someone. I think most of us are properly ashamed of what has gone on in the country’s past, and we won’t stand for people trying to make that our present as well. But if that’s the case, then why are the -isms such a big deal in the media?
I think that one reason is a blurring of the definition. People don’t see as much genuine racism as they used to, so they go and apply it to the next-worst thing, and the next-worst after that. After all, being able to call yourself persecuted lets you elevate yourself to the status of… actually I can’t finish the thought, even sarcastically. As Pinky once said, “no no, it’s too stupid.”
So once again I think it’s important to settle on some reasonable definitions:
- -ism: hatred or outright disrespect. Using race as an example, firing someone from a job or insulting someone because of their race is racist.
- insensitivity: not making the effort to think about how your words or actions will affect other people. Pointing out someone’s race in a context where it’s not relevant may be racially insensitive, as would be using terms with an obvious negative connotation just because they are part of culture. (What kind a “giver?” What kind of a fire drill?) In this situation, you’re not thinking something negative about someone; you’re not thinking about them at all.
- ignorance: saying or doing something that is unflattering to a group of people because you’re honestly unaware of the effect. A lot of stereotypes stem from ignorance. I saw this painting of a teepee in a forest, apparently in the Pacific Northwest. Really? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure (and Wikipedia confirms this) that teepees are more of Great Plains thing. I’m sure the artist wasn’t trying to be insulting. (After all, what insult could possibly be meant?) But a little research may have shown a bit more respect for the culture being depicted – whichever one that was. So that would seem to be an example of racial ignorance. Or cultural ignorance. Or something.
It’s dramatic to call something a more severe term than it deserves. But that drama comes at the cost of communication. For instance, if you start calling people who punch other people “murderers,” then pretty soon calling someone a murderer won’t sound quite so bad. And if the word doesn’t sound so bad, there are people out there who will decide the act isn’t so bad either. Likewise, if you tell every person you date that you love them, what do you say to the person you decide you want to marry? Similarly, it doesn’t do anyone any good to throw the label “-ism” around so freely that people lose track of how bad the real thing really is.
The other problem with the way people label things as -ist comes when they apply the term to inanimate things, like grammatical constructs. You can say that people should say “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, or “remotely piloted” instead of “unmanned”, but you can’t call the language sexist; a language can’t hate anyone. And you can’t say that people who use those terms are sexist, unless you seriously think that people walk around thinking of ways to exclude women from their word choice. And if you think English is “hateful,” then what about Spanish, where adjectives have a masculine suffix when applied to mixed groups, and where inanimate objects have gender attached? Do you think that all Spanish speakers are sexist? Because that would clearly be some kind of -ist. (Not exactly racist, since not all Spanish speakers are the same race. Languageist?)