On Redefining Words
I’m certainly the kind of person who will nitpick over whether a word is being used correctly. On the other hand, I also realize there is no objectively correct definition of any given word. The meaning of words and the rules of grammar change over time. Language was not designed, it evolved, and continues to evolve.
One simple example of this process is the evolution of the word “planet.” Is Pluto a planet, or not? That depends on how the word “planet” is defined, and that definition has changed over time. This video summarizes how the meaning of that word has changed, and how what we designate Pluto has changed as a result. It’s not as though in 2006, we realized that it had been objectively wrong to call Pluto a planet this whole time, and that thankfully we have now finally figured out What “Planet” Has Really Meant All Along. Over time, we’ve learned more about the objects our solar system contains. As our knowledge of them increased, new terms were made to categorize objects with similar traits, and sometimes in this process an object that was in one category gets reclassified into another.
I bring this up because there’s an argument these days about how the word “racism” has been redefined. Traditionally, “racism” meant an irrational dislike of someone due to their racial background, usually paired with some desire to oppress or disadvantage that person. Now, “racism” is taken to describe a far wider scope of phenomena. Famously, or infamously, Ibram Kendi defines “racism” to be anything that doesn’t produce identical outcomes across all groups. For Kendi, racism is an outcome, not a process, which is why in his book How to be an Antiracist Kendi openly states “racial discrimination is not inherently racist.” It’s the outcome that determines (not merely indicates or suggests, determines) racism. If you discriminate against people on the basis of race and end up producing the same outcomes for everyone, then to Kendi you are an antiracist. And if you treat everyone equally regardless of race but outcomes aren’t identical, then to Kendi you are a racist.
Still, it’s not enough to object that Kendi and his fellow thinkers have “redefined” racism. The meaning of words and the scope of concepts are things that change over time, so why can’t racism be redefined just as planet was? Simply appealing to the “original meaning” of the word doesn’t go very far. Nowhere is it written that the “original meaning” of a word is forever the Objectively Correct Meaning – if it was, we’d have to start referring to the moon as a planet again.
Still, some redefinitions are better than others. There are two problems I see with Kendi’s redefinition of racism that make it a bad redefinition, in contrast to how redefining the meaning of planet was a good redefinition.
The first problem is that Kendi’s definition makes racism useless as an explanation for anything that happens. Using the traditional definition, the statement “racism created this difference in outcomes” makes is a clear statement establishing a causal connection. Using Kendi’s definition, this claim becomes meaningless. Since racism is simply anything that produces different outcomes, the statement just becomes “a process that creates different outcomes created different outcomes.”
The second is an issue of clarity. A good redefinition makes the meaning of a word more precise – that is, it narrows the relative scope of what you’re describing. A bad redefinition expands the scope of what you’re describing and makes the term more vague and nebulous. The wider a range of phenomena a word can describe, the less information that word communicates.
This point was brought to mind when reading an article describing the current troubles experienced by Kendi and Boston University. The author, who describes himself as “someone rather to the left of Kendi”, has exactly this concern with how the scope of the term “racism” has been expanded to describe a wider and wider range of things. According to the author, Tyler Harper, “the real damage that Kendi’s philosophy has wrought on American culture is in the way he turned words like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ into banal, everyday terms like any others.” Harper goes on to say:
Obviously there is a huge difference between the racism that motivated the Charleston church shooting and asking people to show up on time to a meeting. If your proposed definition suggests these wildly different events should be described with the same word, then you have offered up a really bad definition and it should be firmly rejected.
Calling everything bad or upsetting in the world “racism” does not transfer the moral urgency to oppose racism (as traditionally defined) to these other things. On the contrary, to use a metaphor from economics, all you’re doing is devaluing the currency through inflation. These new attempts at a definition of racism may not be “objectively wrong,” but they are still debasing.