Culture

Academia Doesn’t Get to Define ‘Racism’ for the Rest of Us

A protester holds a sign at a Trump campaign rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in July 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
The latest controversy stems from a deep confusion about how language works.

A “descriptivist” is someone who studies how language is used. A “prescriptivist” is someone who tells other people how to use language correctly. And while these are often framed as opposing camps, they need not be: A thoughtful descriptivist realizes that strongly established usage patterns should generally be treated as rules by someone who wants to communicate effectively; a thoughtful prescriptivist realizes that the rules emerge from constantly evolving usage patterns.

There’s a certain strain of prescriptivism, though, that merely seeks to impose rules on other people’s language, often on nothing more than one’s own say-so. Overwhelmingly, these folks are harmless-if-annoying self-appointed “sticklers” who insist, for example, that you must not split infinitives or start sentences with conjunctions. But ill-founded prescriptivism also rears its head with political terms, and we’ve been seeing a bit of that lately from the woke left.

Some academics who study racial matters use the word “racism” to mean not “dislike of people on the basis of race,” which is how most people use it, but rather something like “prejudice plus power” or what is more clearly called “institutional” or “systemic” racism — meaning, conveniently, that members of minority groups by definition cannot be racist. And as Scott Alexander noted at Slate Star Codex back in 2014, parts of the Left are no longer willing to admit that this is a departure from standard usage by saying something along the lines of, “I suppose a group of black people chasing a white kid down the street waving knives and yelling ‘KILL WHITEY’ qualifies by most people’s definition, but I prefer to idiosyncratically define it my own way, so just remember that when you’re reading stuff I write.”

Many simply point to academic definitions, as though academia had the power to redefine words for the rest of society; that, of course, is not how language works.

Instead, as Alexander writes, “we have a case where original coinage, all major dictionaries, and the overwhelming majority of common usage all define ‘racism’ one way, and social justice bloggers insist with astonishing fervor that way is totally wrong and it must be defined another.” I am not entirely sure if this is a conscious effort to redefine the word — and by pretending it’s already defined this way they’re “gaslighting” us — or if they have drunk so much Kool-Aid that they can say this in all sincerity. When called on it, many simply point to academic definitions, as though academia had the power to redefine words for the rest of society; that, of course, is not how language works.

There was a similar (if much smaller) kerfuffle in 2015 regarding the word “baby.” As I demonstrated at the time, “baby” and its predecessor “babe” have been in use for centuries, and English speakers have never shied away from describing pregnant women as having “babies” or “babes” in their wombs. And yet during that year’s Planned Parenthood controversy, some insisted it was incorrect to say that “baby parts” were at issue, because the medical community likes to call unborn babies the “products of conception.” (Or at least part of the medical community: In my experience, the folks conducting ultrasounds use the word “baby” all the time.)

To be sure, people are free to try to change the language by brute force if they want. Sometimes it even works: The word “which” was commonly used restrictively (as in “the game which they are playing”) when the comically overrated Elements of Style announced that this was an error, and nowadays adherence to the rule is a reasonably standard aspect of American English. But our words’ definitions are ultimately decided by the community of English speakers, not just by academia.

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