A question of terminology: "sexism" and the "prejudice plus power" definition.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
In a recent MeFi post ("Angry Jane Doe"), the topic of sexism arose. As always happens during discussions on sexism (or racism), a fracas arose over the meaning of the term. The use of the same word for two related but quite different things creates a lot of friction, and I'd like to get some insight into it.
The definition of sexism, as I understood it for a long time, is that it's much like any "-ism." "Isms" usually promote whatever comes before the suffix: "communism" means "communes/community are the best;" "republicanism" means "republics are the best;" "fascism" means "fasces (state force) is the best." A crude way to break it down, I admit, but it works. Thus, "sexism" translated to my mind as "my gender is the best." In colloquial usage, this does seem to be the accepted meaning.
However, this definition runs aground on a second one that gets dragged out frequently online: that sexism is "a belief in gender superiority backed by superior power." Without the force of societal power behind the belief, it is not sexism. Thus, per this definition, in America, men can be sexist, but women can't, because, in the abstract general case, they lack the institutional power.
Now here's my question/problem/whatever. Both the belief in gender superiority and "prejudice plus power" are very real phenomena. But they're also sufficiently different that using the same term for both is confusing and aggravating. Thus, we get the all-too-common dickering back and forth in MeFi threads when someone throws down the "women can't be sexist by definition" gauntlet.
For those well read in feminism, is there a term I'm missing, or is this just considered one of those screwy things? In a lot of social science and philosophic work, normal words are repurposed for technical meanings, which can lead to conversational snarls and arguments when speaking to those outside of the field.
(An aside: If I'm correct about "repurposed technical meanings," then I believe it's bad manners to throw down the "your definition is wrong!" gauntlet, as it fails to recognize that you're working from a specialized, repurposed vocabulary and trying to impose it on the larger language overtop of the widely accepted definition. You can do so, of course, but don't get all pissed off when people get angry at you calling them wrong about their own language. That's human nature. Imagine an argument between two people about a sculpture and whether it's part of "the plastic arts." "But it's not made of plastic!" "Sculpture is a plastic art!" "Are you saying it's phony?" Etc., etc. This is only my opinion, of course.)
In short, if "sexism" is kept to the "prejudice plus power" definition, what's the proper term for the ideology of a woman who considers that women are intrinsically superior? Per this terminology, she can't be sexist. But she's not necessarily misandrist, just as sexist men aren't necessarily misogynists. "Prejudiced" and "bigoted" are applicable but overbroad. Per a (quick) google search, the semi-obvious neologism "genderism" is used a little, but its meaning was hard to nail down, and it looks to be a term without a set meaning. It doesn't look to be a replacement for the other ("my gender is best") meaning of sexism.
Also, why was the word sexism repurposed, rather than a new term created to describe this separate phenomenon? Piggybacking to raise awareness, at the cost of confusion and friction?
All of these same questions can be applied to racism as well. Truth be told, the first time I ever heard this type of debate was applied to that term, that racism had to be from a position of power. Again, this raises the question of what would you label a black person's belief that black people are inherently superior? Again, "prejudice" and "bigotry" fit but are overbroad. Is there a specific term for it?
I'm not in a hurry to use these terms, I'm just curious. If they don't exist, it's a big freakin' hole in the English language. And please note that I'm not denying the existence of sexism of either definition. That shit's real, and it's a huge problem. But today I'm just asking about terminology.