Saturday, November 8, 2014

"Diluting" the meaning

Content note: brief nonexplicit discussion of sexual assault

Recently, someone in the comments accused me of using "sexist" too loosely:
I also take umbrage with the casual and loose way in which people throw around the words sexist, racist, islamaphobia, etc. It gets to the point where EVERYONE can be determined to fit into the insanely loose definition of what constitutes one of those caricatures.
But this is just one example of an attitude I've heard from many people.  Whenever anything is called sexist, homophobic, etc., we're said to be "diluting" the meaning of those words.  We're taking attention away from the more serious problems of outright sexism and homophobia.  I've heard the same said about sexual assault.  When we use "sexual assault" to refer to situations where the victim is drinking, we're diluting the meaning of sexual assault.

I have a zany proposal: Yes, I am diluting the meaning, and I am correct to do so.

Seriously, I would love it if sexual assault were punished more often, but more lightly.  I don't like that people who are convicted of sexual assault basically have their lives ruined because sex offender registries exile them out of many urban areas.  I don't like that I would feel bad about reporting sexual assault, because it's unlikely I would believed, and even if I were believed, it could hurt the accused far more than I want to.

I would love it if sexism and racism were recognized to be not just a few bad apples, but a dilute set of attitudes that affect us all.  I think this makes people uncomfortable, because how can EVERYONE be bad?  But let's frame it another way.  Instead of making it about us vs the baddies, it's now about self-improvement!  What a lighter world that would be!  Furthermore, I think this more closely conforms to the way that prejudice actually works.

Another problem with the stronger definition of sexism/racism/homophobia/etc. is that it gets our personal identities all tangled up with the attitudes.  For instance, consider this quote from the above commenter:
The idea is that when you cherry pick a quote, especially a joke, to make a blanket condemnation you are ignoring what [Bill Maher] actually supports.
No, but here's the thing: I was not trying to make a blanket condemnation of Bill Maher just on the basis of one quote.  Maybe he is otherwise an okay person, what do I know?*  The commenter is saying it's so unreasonable to condemn a whole person just based on one attitude.  You know what, I agree!

*To be fair, I do know that he's an antivaxxer, and I condemn him more strongly on that basis.  Some of this animosity towards Maher may spill over into my other comments about him.  But that's largely an independent issue, and obviously not everyone who makes sexist jokes will be an antivaxxer.

And that's exactly why the meaning of "sexist" should become more dilute.  Right now, "sexism" is so strong that it's reserved only for people who are all around terrible about everything.  It would be better if instead it referred to some particular thing, not a whole person, that is objectionable.  It would be great to disentangle personal identity from sexism.

In summary, I wish we could recognize sexism/racism/homophobia/ sexual assault/Islamophobia/etc. more frequently, and also be less punitive about the times when we do recognize them.