Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Map Is Not The Territory - confusion over '-isms'.

Let’s talk for a moment about ‘-isms’.

Recently Joss Whedon claimed that an ‘ist’ can only be learned, can’t be present at birth, and is therefore “not natural”. (I’m focussing here on that dismissal of ‘-ist’ and not the rest of what he said. The link above does that if you want to engage with that issue. If you’re here about the use of the suffix, please read on.)

I’ve seen people leave comments in discussions claiming they personally aren’t an ‘-ist’ of any kind and dismissing all ‘-isms’ as indoctrinated nonsense.

First, a definition of ‘-ism’ by way of etymology:
Ultimately from either Ancient Greek -ισμός (-ismos), a suffix that forms abstract nouns of action, state, condition, doctrine; from stem of verbs in -ίζειν (-izein) (whence English -ize), or from the related suffix Ancient Greek -ισμα (-isma), which more specifically expressed a finished act or thing done.

So an ‘-ism’ relates to something you do, are, believe, have, or go along with.

Try dismissing magnetism as indoctrinated nonsense sometime and let me know how you get on.

Now a definition of ‘-ist’ from the OED:Forming personal nouns and some related adjectives.
1 denoting an adherent of a system of beliefs, principles, etc. expressed by nouns ending in -ism:
hedonistCalvinist See -ism (sense 2).
- denoting a person who subscribes to a prejudice or practises discrimination: sexist
2 denoting a member of a profession or business activity: dentist, dramatist, florist
- denoting a person who uses a thing: flautist, motorist
- denoting a person who does something expressed by a verb ending in -ize: plagiarist

So an ‘-ist’ is someone who does something, is something, believes something or goes along with something.
The exclusion there is whether something you have, a property of who or what you are, can make you an ‘-ist’.

Is racism learnt or natural? Well this is just the defunct old ‘nature vs. nurture’ question and a false dichotomy. Prejudice is hardwired into our psychology,(as described by Tajfel’s work on Social Identity Theory ), but many of the specifics of in-group/out-group criteria are cultural and all of them are subject to change through familiarity. It wasn’t possible to be racist at a time when no one had the ability to travel far enough to meet people of different races, so that suggests perhaps it’s a modern phenomenon. In fact, all that means is we invented a word for the naturally occurring prejudice that emerged when we did meet other races and saw them as out-group. The source of the prejudice is the same. The natural tendency is nurtured by experience. As ever.

Henri Tajfel

Now, don’t go deriving an ought from an is. Observing prejudice occurring due to psychological traits is not an approval of it. That’s the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy. Just because something is natural doesn’t make it good, bad or even neutral. It simply is. I could make the same argument replacing the word ‘racism’ with the word ‘altruism’. An altruist is just as likely to be acting on motives lurking in their evolved cognitive functions as a racist.

What I’m getting at here is the wholesale dismissal of everything with an ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’ suffix and justifying the rejection of a complex label, comes from ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s possible that ignorance stretches as far as the dictionaries we use to define our labels.

As Korzybski said: ‘the map is not the territory’.

Alfred Korzybski

If you dismiss a label based on your own personal interpretation, or the general consensus of what it means, shutting your eyes to the clues to a wider meaning, you conflate that label with what it represents.

If you confuse the definition of a label for the naturally occurring phenomena that we as a scientific species are constantly learning about and redefining, you close doors to your understanding.

If you are a wordsmith with a huge global following you might yet lack the qualifications to discuss the matter of whether a specific trait found in humanity, one that continues to affect so many lives, is “natural” or otherwise.

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