What's the what on terminology around "sexism?"
July 29, 2011 11:27 AM   Subscribe

A question of terminology: "sexism" and the "prejudice plus power" definition.

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.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You're noting that the way certain people in the world want to define certain terms leads to some ideas being impossible to express: you give the examples of a woman who thinks women are intrinsically superior and a black person's belief that black people are inherently superior, and you note that if we're not allowed to call these things "sexist" or "racist", then there's now "a big freakin' hole in the English language."

Let me ask you a question in response: have you ever read Orwell's 1984? If not, your answer lies there.

Happy reading!
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 11:37 AM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

The "prejudice plus power" definition is pretty much useless after the 10th grade. With modern prejudice-based -isms, don't know that belief about group superiority per se enters into it. Sexism, racism, etc. as they exist in society today are about upholding a system for its own sake (the people in power in this society like it, because they're comfortable and believe they deserve to be in power), although some of the foundations of that system are based on prejudices that prevent equality or justice for certain groups in a real and meaningful sense.
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:44 AM on July 29, 2011

-ism doesn't really mean superiority of one thing over another; it simply connotes a way of thinking or a system of belief. Words like sexism and racism are really just describe specific forms of compartmentalism.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:48 AM on July 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

are really
posted by Sys Rq at 11:48 AM on July 29, 2011

I get your break-down definition of -isms, but my understanding of racism and sexism don't fit that. -Isms as they apply to discriminatory beliefs, to me, mean that you are using that basis to unfairly discriminate between or against (not necessarily the same thing) people. So if you are sexist, you use sex to discriminate, and if you are racist, you use race to discriminate. White people thinking all white people are smarter than black people are racist, and black people thinking all black people are smarter than white people are racist, and black people thinking all white people are smarter than black people are racist.

(I make a distinction between fair and unfair discrimination, so for example if you were to say “women’s hips are usually wider than men’s,” that is not sexism to me, since it's true. Not everyone makes or agrees with that distinction, I’ve found.)

I always understood the tag-on of “institutional” to add the prejudice-plus-power connotation, ie, institutional racism and institutional sexism. That might not be correct, though.
posted by thebazilist at 11:53 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Prejudice". That's your answer. "She is prejudiced against men." "They are prejudiced against whites".

The point of "sexism is privilege plus power" is to create a way around the verbal impasse of "women who don't like men are exactly the social equivalent of men who hold women in contempt" and to highlight that different groups occupy different social positions.
posted by Frowner at 11:54 AM on July 29, 2011 [12 favorites]

What question are you actually asking here? It's quite hard to tell.

For those well read in feminism, is there a term I'm missing, or is this just considered one of those screwy things?

Well, this is one reason why certain strands of feminist thought are apt to talk about "patriarchy" — a word that clearly refers to social structures and ways of thinking with a long history, rather than just prejudice or discrimination.

Like almost any words that are pivotally important in political and/or academic debate, social thought, and activism, the meanings of "sexism" and "racism" are contested. What they mean is a matter of constant discussion and debate, and varies radically according to context and audience, rather than a matter of relatively settled consensus like the meaning of "automobile" or "tree."

The "prejudice plus power" definition is favored by certain stripes of activist, almost always on rhetorical/pedagogical rather than analytical grounds — because it seems like a compacy way to communicate a desired meaning to a usually ignorant audience whom they're trying to persuade, not because it's the final truth.

Sys Rq is right, too: your interpretation of what the "-ism" suffix means is wrong. It's a way to denote systems of doctrine or belief, not just, er, boosterism.
posted by RogerB at 11:55 AM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

As I learned it, sexism was the belief that there was a basic inherent difference (beside biologically) between sexes. The same went for racism; just because someone's skin is a different color doesn't mean that you can make any generalization about them.
The 'power' component is a little wrinkle, in that it is sometimes used to justify the notion that anyone who has been discriminated against can't possibly be racist or sexist, which is absolutely not true. It's true that one group can screw with the less popular one, but that doesn't make any reciprocal prejudice any more valid.
All that said, I find the use of 'gender' in place of 'sex' to be sort of annoying. The two are very different, and should be used appropriately.
posted by Gilbert at 11:57 AM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This really depends if you're using the word colloquially or if you're using it in the discipline that studies it. It's somewhat awkward the way the terms overlap but understanding that the word can mean different things to different people isn't that tough to get your head around. People who are having discussions in larger circles than they are used to may not even realize that there are two competing definitions but I would certainly hope that once they were made aware of this, they could act decently about it. This is not, however, always the case.

Arguing about the meaning of the words seems to me to be a way to deflect from the significantly more problematic issue of institutionalized oppressive behavior towards certain groups which doesn't just magically heal once that behavior goes away.
posted by jessamyn at 11:58 AM on July 29, 2011 [11 favorites]

"Sexism" and "racism" sound nastier than "prejudice" so many people wish to reserve the nastier word for the more egregious sin. Since there's not universal agreement over that narrowing of the scope for the definition, I think it's counterproductive, but there it is.
posted by tyllwin at 12:01 PM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jessamyn -- I understand, and I don't disagree that the two things are fairly easy to separate. My question is that in the discipline itself, is there a separate term for "belief in gender superiority regardless of power," or is "sexism" called upon to mean both? They're different enough that I'd imagine a second term would be helpful.

This is my basic question, which came out far more rambling than I intended.

And yes, I'm aware that my "ism" definition was crude and not very accurate.

And no, I don't put any stock into Orwellian theories of language control when it comes to this stuff.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 12:03 PM on July 29, 2011

I first heard the "prejudice plus power" definition in discussions centering on racism; I hear that it was first coined in Judith Katz's book "White Awareness," first published in 1978. As I understand it, introducing power into the equation is fundamentally a way of redirecting the conversation from "Isn't affirmative action racist against white people?" / "Isn't it racist to have an African American Studies major but not a White Studies major."

"Gender essentialist" is a pretty good word for people who feel that one gender is innately X and one is innately Y. (Whether X and Y are "good" and "bad" or "nurturing" and "violent" or whatever else.)
posted by Jeanne at 12:07 PM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also: "Arguing about the meaning of the words seems to me to be a way to deflect from the significantly more problematic issue of institutionalized oppressive behavior towards certain groups which doesn't just magically heal once that behavior goes away."

Hell yeah. I agree completely. This question is me throwing my hands up in the air and shouting "goddammit, would you people stop flaming each other over terminology and deal with what's going on!" If there were an alternate term that eliminated the overlap, would it cut down on the damn back-and-forths over "what sexism is" and lead to more fruitful discussions?

Eh, probably not. People would argue over some other sideshow crap. But I can dream.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 12:13 PM on July 29, 2011

I'm unaware of a term that distuinguishes between sexual differences and sexual superiority. I think that 'sexism' covers both, in that it's a broad-brush assumption that women do things in one manner, while men do it in a different manner. Even something that apparently benign is inherently sexist.
posted by Gilbert at 12:15 PM on July 29, 2011

People would argue over some other sideshow crap.

Correct. The problem with discussions like this is that it's very difficult to be mindful of the fact that when you rail against sexism or racism people will naturally feel defensive about it and that often begets the sideshow argument behavior unless managed well. Big topic. Hard to manage.

I've heard people use the phrase "insitutionalized sexism" sometimes. This embodies the power issue and can be used for the real sort of sexism-against-men that does occasionally happen (people will often point to the father's rights movement - I emphatically do not want to start a fight about this but many people believe that the legal system is slanted against fathers in custody disputes merely because of their gender and this would be an example) without it just being individual instances of women being uncool to men or people using gender-loaded words (the old "why is it worse to call someone a cunt than a dick" argument)
posted by jessamyn at 12:28 PM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Conscious belief in gender superiority
Unconscious prejudice
Institutionalized discrimination
Simple misogyny
Violence against women
Gender role stereotypes

Those things are all problems in themselves. They are not identical, and we do need to identify each by name. However, they are not independent. They amplify and reinforce each other. As I use it, sexism is a term for the whole toxic stew of interrelated features of our society which together make life worse for women. Anyone, male or female, who is expressing and/or reinforcing any aspect of sexism is sexist (or at least acting in a sexist manner).

women can't, because, in the abstract general case, they lack the institutional power

This was false even in the 1950's. Women then lacked the power to pass bad laws or institute dreadful hiring policies, but those are not the only aspects of sexism. Pioneers went breaking down gender stereotypes; other women (sexist women) tried to shame them back into line.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:11 PM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I define sexism as "(negative) discrimination based on gender" and racism as "(negative) discrimination based on race/color." I define feminism as "a belief in gender equality." I am aware that homophobia pretty much means "(negative) discrimination based on sexual orientation" even though it should mean gear of homosexuals, which is how it was originally intended. These are political terms, and they refer to beliefs in a rapidly changing environment. Political terms always get twisted and shaped to meet differing political agendas. I don't think your algorithm for -isms is accurate.
posted by theora55 at 1:28 PM on July 29, 2011

I think you have to add in the fact that basically no-one describes themselves as sexist, whereas someone would call themselves a communist. The argument about terminology is not as frivolous as it first appears. Basically you have at term that everyone agrees is a bad thing, and the way to advance your agenda is to convince everyone that your definition is what they mean when they say "I'm against sexism." The problem with calling a woman sexist is that descriptively, it might be true in the technical sense, but performatively, it's a call to mobilize society against her views because of the way the term "sexism" functions. It's a floating signifier.

A similar problem exists with "peace." Wars are always started in the name of peace, so that the pro-war and anti-war camp fights over the definition of "peace." Calling someone anti-peace is not descriptive, it marks them as a threat to society.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:52 PM on July 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Institutionalism sexism" and "institutionalized racism" are more effective phrases to deal with the same idea.

Redefining the -isms into meaning only the "prejudice + power" formulation was a well-meaning attempt to rebut clueless "well if you can have Black History Month why can't we have White History Month"-type statements, but the formulation has not been an effective strategy.

Unless the other person already agrees with you, you're redefining the terms of the argument. This does not go over well with people. It's a bad rhetorical strategy. It gets especially bad when people are condescending about it - "oh, you silly, don't you know that 'racism' actually means 'prejudice + power!'" This usually causes people to push back harder.

A better way to deal with the other party, in this example, would be to explain how every other month, including Black History Month, is white history month, because whiteness holds the real cultural power, black history has been underrepresented for eons, etc. etc. etc.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:35 PM on July 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

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.

This is now how I've understood the "prejudice plus power" definition to be used within feminist circles:

The "power" that matters is not the power that the person with the prejudice possesses, but what kind of power the prejudice itself has. A woman can be sexist towards other women, because her beliefs are validated by our sexist-against-women society. A man who believes that women are superior would not be sexist, despite him having greater power, unless his beliefs had sexist implications. (For example, if he believed women are better than men because they're more pure, or something. I'm having a hard time thinking of any common beliefs that treat the genders as essentially different that don't have sexist implications, honestly.)

Usually, I don't see "sexist" itself used much when feminists are talking to themselves; I have a feeling a lot of feminists avoid the word just because it's so contentious when describing behaviors that form a picture of institutionalized oppression. "Misogynist" is more specific and specialized.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:27 PM on July 29, 2011

Just as a general point, language is never as logical or well-ordered as you might want it to be. The English language is full of words that have strayed from their etymological origins — and some have strayed much farther than "sexism" has.

Still, there are phrases that still unambiguously have the meanings you're looking for. (If you want a single word, you may be out of luck. But then, we also lack a single widely-used word for "attorney general," "New Mexico," "gin and tonic," "back hair," and loads of other useful concepts. Nothing wrong with a short catchy phrase.)

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?

"Black supremacy," or "black supremacism." Similarly, "white supremacism," and more generally "(name of race) supremacism" for members of other races.

My question is that in the discipline itself, is there a separate term for "belief in gender superiority regardless of power," or is "sexism" called upon to mean both? They're different enough that I'd imagine a second term would be helpful.

"Male chauvinism" and (less often) "female chauvinism" were used in the 70s and 80s to refer to this sort of belief in your own sex's superiority. The phrases sound a little outdated to my ear, and younger folks might or might not know them. (The concepts they refer to are also, I think, considered to be a little outdated in feminist theory. That is, more feminists these days are interested in questions of power, institutional imbalance and unconscious emotion than they are in the question "Which sex do you consciously prefer?" But I'm sure anyone who's been around feminist theory or gender studies will be familiar with the phrases, even if they don't find many occasions to use them.)

I don't know how widespread the phrases "male supremacism" and "female supremacism" are, but I would understand them as unambiguous references to the belief you're interested in — and I suspect most other people would too. They have the advantage of not making you sound like a visitor from 1976.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:57 PM on July 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's no objective standard for what's a right or wrong answer to your question, and nothing tangible hinges on how these words are used. "Sexism" and "racism" aren't legally significant terms like "contract" or "murder" or "citizen" or "employee," where the line-drawing about what gets to be called by that word can directly affect people's lives. People can use words like "sexism" or "racism" or "prejudice" or "power" or "privilege" to mean whatever they want. As the old joke about academia goes, the arguments are so heated because the stakes are so small.

If some people want to exclude blacks and women from those who can possibly be called "racist" or "sexist" (respectively), they can go ahead and do so. I just won't take their statements seriously, since those statements are themselves racist and sexist. (I deliberately don't say "reverse-...") Obviously, some people will disagree with me on this, but there's no official body that legislates the meanings of English words, so there's no definitive way to resolve it. Many people simply enjoy speaking in a racist and sexist way, so they'll take advantage of whatever racist and sexist statements are socially approved.

Those kinds of people will say things like, "Black people can't be racist." Of course black people can be racist. If you believe someone is a fully human adult, you should believe they're capable of doing evil, because adult human beings can do evil. A black person can hate (or discriminate against) whites, or can hate (or discriminate against) their own race, or can hate Asians, etc. This is just as true as the fact that a white person can do any of those things. And of course a woman can be prejudiced against anyone, and can back up the prejudice with power. Do you think a woman can't make sexist hiring decisions? Do you think a black store owner or black cop can't zero in on young black men as suspects for crime? Of course they can, just as men and whites can. Anyone who says blacks and women can't do take these wrong actions is infantilizing and dehumanizing blacks and women.

And of course there is sexism against men. It isn't a good answer to say: "But men are in a position of power." "Men" (meaning, the 3 billion individuals in the world with a certain kind of genitalia) don't have "power" over the fact that there is the sexism to which I refer. "Men" (almost all of them) don't have the "power" to stop the draft in situations where it's in effect. "Men" don't have "power" to end stereotypes about how men should and shouldn't behave. "Men" don't have "power" to undo the fact that almost all incarcerated people are men. (An individual man can reduce the number by not committing crimes, but I as a law-abiding man can't change this overall gender disparity, just like a law-abiding black man can't change the racial disparity.) "Men" don't have "power" to make it more socially acceptable to be a stay-at-home dad. "Men" don't have "power" to make it more socially acceptable for men to cry and less socially acceptable for men to use violence. Very few if any people have the power to make entrenched stereotypes evaporate with a snap of their fingers. So the facile assertion that men (all men, not just CEOs and heads of state) are the ones in power, and thus they can't be victims sexism, is a nonstarter. In many ways, men simply do not have this mythical "power" to the extent they supposedly have.
posted by John Cohen at 9:50 PM on July 29, 2011

People argue over the definitions of these words as a proxy for the real argument, which is whether institutionalized racism and sexism exist, and more importantly, to what extent. Arguing that your opponent doesn't understand the terms you're using is a way for you to claim superiority over the opposing side. "Why should I be expected to argue with you when you don't even understand the vocabulary of the debate?" That's the message it sends.

But the fact is, the argument over the vocabulary is the argument, and it's easier to argue over definitions than it is to make moral or sociological arguments. It's less intellectual work, and it's easier to spit out when you're feeling passionate about the issue. That's why, I think, there's so much acrimony in debates on MeFi over this stuff: it's not reasoned argument so much as assertions of passion. Passion doesn't debate; it asserts itself.
posted by smorange at 11:58 PM on July 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Language changes, as culture changes.

Mary Daly would have called these discussions "patriarchal mindbinding”.

No sooner does an oppressed group develop language to describe their oppression – then the oppressor takes that language and uses it to further oppress.

And thus…nothing really changes.
posted by what's her name at 7:28 AM on July 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Help my SO reunite with his stuff.   |   Seeking a children's book? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.