When a word has two meanings

I have learnt some interesting things since my post on the war of Tom’s list. One of those is to be careful when naming the ideology involved.

I do not want to frame this ideology by using the names given to it by its critics, because then any criticism will likely be dismissed on these grounds*. But the adherents offer no clear alternative, as if naming it is to admit that it is an ideology and not just the way that good and decent people think.

For instance, when I critiqued a group of ‘self-identified antiracists’ I was called out for criticising antiracism in general (you can join the dots to see the implication behind that…). This is not helpful. It suggests that there is only one way to be against racism – their way. This is like saying that there is only one way of being against the excesses of the free market – Stalinism.

So I am going to break a personal taboo and make-up my own acronym. I am going to name this ideology as neutrally as I can – the ‘Ideology of Systemic Oppression’ or ISO. Hopefully, even its adherents would recognise that they believe in systemic oppression. Another feature that they probably would accept is that the way they use terms like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ are not the way these terms are commonly used, and instead represent a definition that encompasses a wider range of words and deeds. Which brings me to my next point.

ISO does not utilise only the expansive definitions, and therein lies its power.

Writing in the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh describes the expansive definition of racism used by advocates such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. To Kendi, “…nonracist identity is contingent and unstable: we are all constantly peeling and resticking those nametags…” and comments, “If the word “racist” is capacious enough to describe both proud slaveholders and Barack Obama, and if it nevertheless must constantly be recalibrated in light of new policy research, then it may start to lose the emotional resonance that gives it power in the first place.”

You may be wondering why Barak Obama is racist. That is because he once decried the, “erosion of black families”. New policy research is necessary because, according to Kendi’s definition, policies are racist in their effect rather than their intent. Racism can be apparent in those pursuing a policy, even if the effect is not yet known. So they don’t yet know they are being racist.

Once you open up the definition of racism in this way, it is possible to demonstrate that it is more prevalent than under traditional definitions. However, according to Sanneh, Kendi is inconsistent. When he uses, ‘racist’, to describe a disliked teacher at school, the word, “…seems less like a sticker and more like a tattoo: the word stings because it seems to convey something distasteful and profound about the person it describes.”

I propose that ISO depends upon an elision of these two definitions. The first, racism-is-everything, definition is used to convince people to acknowledge their alleged racism. The second, racism-as-character-flaw, definition is then swapped for the first definition, in order to make people feel morally compromised and dependent upon the advocate for ISO to help them out of this place. If they react badly and complain about being labelled a racist, the first definition can be switched back in as cover. We have seen a lot of that recently on EduTwitter.

It is a kind of doublethink that ISO adherents are probably unaware of practising. However, once you can understand and describe a phenomenon, particularly one designed to manipulate people into a certain pattern of thought and behaviour, you have a better chance of resisting it.


*I’m not certain I could write anything that would be received well, to be honest, short of some kind of repentance. Any critique of ISO proves the validity of ISO.

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5 thoughts on “When a word has two meanings

    1. You are describing intrinsic racism, which is used to corner people who are not racist, to make them feel morally bad. Institutional racism is of the same ilk. They, along with the ‘racism is prejudice plus power’ definition are used to discredit anyone who tries to suggest that racism is not confined to white people and that racism is not the cause of every ill for ethnic minorities. They are all illegitimate definitions, and swapping them is frequent. Good that you have called this lot out. They damage the cause of genuine anti-racism.
      Btw indigenous means belonging to or coming from the place you are in. It does not mean you belong to an ethnic minority, and cannot be used in this way.

  1. The technical term for this elision is “motte and bailey” argumentation.

    White people are racists. When it’s pointed out that some specific examples clearly aren’t, they state that it was never intend to be *all* — a retreat to the fortress (bailey) which is easily defensible. But as soon as your back is turned the wider (motte) statement reappears unchanged. Repeated as long as necessary, taking the defensible or indefensible as required.

  2. Reminds me of an idea called psudeoteaching. The principle was that being told you were good didn’t mean you were so. It had a rule that you apply the concept to yourself not others to avoid weaponising it.
    The idea was to self reflect by finding more reliable metrics for your performance not to attack others and undermine them.

    If I think of the utalitarian definition of racism in this way it is useful. Potentialy powerful if I have the means to affect change. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have the same prohibition over when it can be used.

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