The [Whatever] on this thread is disgusting

I spotted a thread on Facebook that involved someone expressing concern over the amount of racism going on. Someone else had this interesting little piece in response to them:

racismIn short, “criticising religion is not racism, because religion is not a tribe.”

This is not as smart an argument as you might think. And if at this point you find yourself running to a dictionary to prove otherwise, then you definitely have some learning to do.

Let’s start at the beginning.

If you over-generalise and make derogatory statements about a large group of people based on superficial qualities, then you’re guilty of… what? Racism? Xenophobia? Bigotry? In actual fact it doesn’t matter, because the facts remain; you’re making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities.

Trouble is, “making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities” is a bit of a mouthful.  Like calling myFunction() in some code, or some other suitable metaphor, you just need something there to tidy things up a little. Something to simplify and make your life easier when transferring thoughts from your brain to another. Doesn’t really matter what you call it. Well, actually, it does matter what you call it. It can matter quite a bit, because people make bad assumptions based on what you’ve called it. Ask anyone who has banged their head on a wall trying to convince some twerp that third-wave, sex-positive feminism isn’t Andrea Dworkin.

People are idiots for doing this sort of thing, but hey, we have a framework of human stupidity to work with, we may as well take action against it.

So, what do we call it when someone is making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities? There’s “discrimination”, but that has a lot of inferences about selecting people for job interviews based on skin colour, so isn’t the best choice. Bigotry is better, of course. It’s certainly one of those arbitrary combinations of vowels and consonants you can sink your teeth into with bile as you accuse someone of it. Though we’re really after a proper “ism” here. Racism and sexism come to mind, and homophobia and xenophobia describe the same thing but curiously use a different suffix. In those cases, they’re all notably broken down by the type of victim, not by the act itself.  So what if the victim falls outside of that range, such as a religion? This is interesting because we don’t necessarily have a single word for it in English; “religionism”? Maybe. Maybe not. Then we’re back to just “bigotry”.

Interestingly, this naming convention also helps us define hate crimes (this will be a bit of an aside, but the point will become clear in a moment). Now, we do already have religious discrimination under “hate crime”, but again, what about when the victim falls outside that pre-approved set of Real Victims? For instance, there was a recent change in UK law that lead to the inclusion of “subcultures” under the umbrella of hate crime. For context, this was sparked by the murder of Sophie Lancaster, who was brutally attacked and killed simply for being a goth.

This change met with some strong resistance. But why? After all, Sophie Lancaster was attacked, beaten and ultimately killed for her superficial outward appearance that her attackers didn’t like, and purposefully went out of their way to target. If we described it as such without any further particulars, one would assume we were talking about a racially-motivated attack. Yet, up until that point, it wouldn’t have even been considered as a hate crime on par with a racially-motivated attack. The reason why was partially because we simply didn’t have a name for “gothism” to bring it tightly under the umbrella of “hate crime”.  Without the name, we don’t really have a group to put under that list of pre-approved suitable victims. That’s not to say the concept can’t exist without the label, but it is far more difficult to rally a cause around nothing.

And so, people immediately assume it “didn’t count”. Despite what actually happened, what was actually done, and every attribute of the attack itself, it was simply a case of “yes it counts” or “no it doesn’t” based on such prior biases. And so, people didn’t think it was right to include attacks on subcultures under the umbrella of a hate crime; they thought it would water down the “real” definition.

(Anyhow, that’s the aside over.)

The point being that there’s a similar situation with anti-religious bigotry; the all Muslims are terrorist variety, rather than the “religion is a vector for harmful divisive effects on society” variety, of course. We don’t really have a single term for it. In many cases, we lump hatred of Muslims under “racism”, if only because of the backlash against “islamophobia” and the fact that the word “Muslim” in most contexts aims to conjure up a non-western and non-white ethnic group far more than, say, “Scientologist” does. But that still implies that it’s skin colour rather than religion we’re looking at. It’s making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities… but dash it all, it’s the wrong superficial quality!

So, if the original argument said “the racism on this thread is disgusting”, then you might be tricked into thinking the little screen capture above is a nice solid refutation of it. But it would still be a trick; a mere illusion. If it said “the [making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities] is disgusting”, does it still work? Does it actually refute anything? Does it demonstrate that [whatever] wasn’t happening? Or does it just attempt to redefine the terms so that it looks as if it isn’t?

Meaning is use, and sub-optimal selection of terminology doesn’t imply any incorrectness in the thought process. This is why we use logic; as logic is actually independent of definition. Logic lets us look at the thought process to see if it’s sound, without being prejudiced by our assumptions and inferences about what words “should” mean. It’s a great tool, but we need to be aware of it to use it.

And yes, I read the thread in question. The [making over-generalised derogatory statements about a group of people based on superficial qualities] was, indeed, disgusting.

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3 thoughts on “The [Whatever] on this thread is disgusting

  1. Pingback: Le tabou rationaliste – Maniac Geek

  2. Hard for your audience to agree or disagree without having read that thread, a link would help. Strictly speaking that commenter was right though, if the ‘victim’ was a religion instead of explicitly an ethnic group, ‘racism’ just isn’t the correct term for it. And if the ‘victim’ was indeed Islam, I can’t feel sorry for it. Islam is disgusting. (And yes, so are Christianity and Judaism, but that’s beside the point.)

    Reply
    • Then you missed the point entirely. If by “strictly speaking” they’re right because they defined their words on their own terms, then that’s trivially true. If you define your words exclusively on your own terms, you can make anything “true” – and indeed, you can make it true in all possible circumstances. Words are representations of concepts, and on their own they mean nothing. This is why you need to logically analyse someone’s actual thought process without bias, rather than just running to a dictionary to endlessly debate the definition. I’d recommend reading Yudkowsky on the subject, but he’s an acquired taste, so perhaps either some summaries of Wittgenstein or descriptivist linguistics.

      But no, I won’t link out to the thread (it’s probably dead and buried by now), but the comments on it were specifically attacking Muslims, i.e., the people, not Islam, the idea. Not quite to the point of calling upon people to go kill them (not even Sam Harris went quite that far) but certainly in a way indistinguishable from the bigotry that enlightened atheists claim to be above. They’re not, given them half a chance and they will still revert back to the base instincts of human nature to fear difference and ostracise Others.

      Reply

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