Nouning Considered Harmful*

by Shaker smadin

Here's the thing: Using adjectives as nouns obscures meaning, harms discourse, impairs communication, and ultimately reduces our ability to think in a careful and nuanced way about controversial issues, let alone effect social progress. Anyone who wants to see our society become less divided rather than more, and in particular anyone who wants to combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of prejudice and modes of oppression, should try hard to avoid the practice, and refrain from calling a person a sexist, or a racist, or a homophobe, instead applying those descriptors to his or her actions.

Here's why.
"I don't like the word 'addict' because it has terrible connotations," Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. "Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as 'Morphiumsüchtig.' The verb suchen means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as 'morphine seeky' or even more loosely as 'morphine-seeking.' I prefer 'seeky' because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Shaftoe says.

"Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It's leaky all the time—even if it's not raining at the moment. But it's only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine-seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to 'addict,' because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe." [emphasis added]
This passage from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon gets at some of my concern. Nouns have a tendency to be binary: a thing either is, say, a stone or a chair or a pen, or it isn't; but adjectives admit of degree. We don't think of "soft" and "not soft" as the only two possible states of softness, or "blue" and "not blue" as the only two possible states of blueness. A thing can be completely blue or completely hard — or at least we can conceive of those extremes, though they don't really occur in life — but virtually everything falls somewhere between the poles.

And we, humans, are more complicated things than stones or chairs or pens, so nearly all the ways we describe each other are more meaningful than "soft" and "blue." Surely, then, in the most emotionally and politically charged areas we ought to exercise special care to use language that recognizes, rather than denies, that no one is wholly one thing or another.

This is an idea that's been developing in my head for a long time — probably ever since I read the quoted passage above.

Imagine with me a public figure who makes an off-the-cuff statement, say at a restaurant or something. This statement uses loaded language with a history of being associated with racism or racial slurs. Imagine how the public figure reacts if people then say, "Look, so-and-so is a racist!" Pretty easy thought experiment, right? Because we've seen that movie before, with Michael Richards and with Mel Gibson and so on and so on.

In many people's minds, "A Racist" is nothing short of a white-sheeted KKK member with a swastika armband chanting the N-word and brandishing a noose while standing in front of a burning cross, and so to call someone "a racist" is to say they're exactly like that Platonic Racist. And that's clearly false, they're not like that at all, why, some of their best friends are black! So it's you, you crazy liberal, who's all oversensitive, who's really the intolerant one — you want to control every little thing anyone might think or say lest someone somewhere take offense! This just goes to show that racism isn't a real problem anymore! Why, that kind of politically-correct thought-policing behavior is downright fascist! And now we're off in Cloud Cuckoo Jonah Goldberg Land.

There are any number of great examples of this sort of thing happening. Like this one, or this one (which Coates discusses further here).

There's a flip side of this, too: On the one hand, use "racist" (I trust it's obvious that this applies to other terms as well) as a noun and your audience thinks you're talking about the Platonic Racist. But on the other hand, being accustomed to using "racist" as a noun, and thinking of it as a noun, lets you tell yourself "I am not like the Platonic Racist, therefore I am not a racist!" This is a dangerous thing to say to oneself (no matter how buried that meaning might be in layers of obfuscation and rationalization): As PortlyDyke said so well in one of the posts that inspired me to start writing this one, if you don't claim it, it's not yours to change.

If I tell myself "I'm not a racist" because I don't resemble or act or speak like the Platonic Racist, I conclude that this means things I do or think or say must not be motivated by racial prejudice. I can provide rationalizations and explanations of why they're not racist, if I'm pressed. But the real reason they're not racist is that I did or thought or said them, and I'm Not A Racist. To be A Racist is to be a bad person, obviously, and I'm not a bad person, so I must not be A Racist, so whatever I did can't have been racist.

And so I elide, and blind myself to, my own role in a racist society, and quite probably not only prevent myself from doing the good I want to do but preclude my being taken seriously as an anti-racist ally by people of color. Thinking this way, thinking of and using "racist," "sexist," etc. as nouns that one either is or isn't, is thus harmful in two ways: It hinders our attempts to address problems of prejudice and hierarchy external to ourselves, and it provides us a false sense of moral righteousness that prevents us from working to improve, or even recognizing, our own failings.

We exist in a racist, sexist, homophobic, heterocentric, xenophobic, fatphobic, ageist, classist, ableist, white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal/kyriarchal society. It has always been that way, and its structure is infused with prejudice and hierarchy. That means we are all, all of us, regardless of our respective positions in the overlapping hierarchies that make up that society, racist, sexist, homophobic, heterocentric, xenophobic, fatphobic, ageist, classist, ableist, to some degree. As Liss has said, "[A]ll of us, sans rigorous philosophical exertion, are hapless conduits for every limiting and oppressive archetype upon which the [kyriarchy] depends, conveying the bars of our own cages."

Each of us probably has each of these characteristics in varying degrees, some more and some less than other people. We can't help it: We've been soaking in them since before we were born, and they're so pervasive that they're hard to see. Does that make us bad people? Well, it doesn't make us good people, but "Bad Person"/"Good Person" is another false dichotomy like "A Racist"/"Not A Racist". We can always, and should always try to, be better. If I can quote myself:
We're soaking in it, and we always have been. I want to emphasize, however, that in no way am I claiming any of this absolves us of responsibility. It's uncomfortable, because it means recognizing that much of what we've been taught since before we were conscious is a lie, but it's not actually hard to see the truth, and to see gender for the lie it is, even if we can't fully free our own minds from that lie (I often think of gender as being like heroin — it poisons us slowly, but we can't even fully process the notion of freeing ourselves from it, and what that would mean).

It makes me sick to know that hate is in me, but I have to own it: as someone — I believe someone around these parts — said, "if you don't own it, it's not yours to change." I'm sexist, misogynist, racist, homophobic, heterosexist, fatphobic, ageist, ableist. I'm less so than many people, though also more so than many; these things aren't binary, they're matters of degree. And by doing my best to be aware of them, I can lessen them further and reduce their impact on others [I also previously wrote about this implicit bias study, which I think is immensely important]. And if we all do that, then gradually they'll wither out of the world, even if we ourselves don't live to see it.

But for now, they're still there.
There is in fact no contradiction in being both racist and anti-racist, sexist and feminist, homophobic and an LGBTQI ally, or indeed in being both racist and a person of color, sexist and a woman, homophobic and an L, G, B, T, Q and/or I person. These things coexist and compete within us whether or not we pay conscious attention; but if we pay conscious attention we can put a thumb on the scale.

I'm not the first person to address this issue, of course (though I think I might be the first to do so by quoting Neal Stephenson). The always-brilliant Jay Smooth took it on; so did Kevin and Amp; and Liss often points out that it's inappropriate and dehumanizing to use "male" and "female" as nouns in place of "man" and "woman" — "a female what?" as she would say. (Of course, we don't actually have a noun that means "male person" or "female person" without specifying their gender role, as "man" and "woman" do, instead of just biological sex, but that's a post for another day — and I suspect were we not conditioned to "need" to know each person's gender, there would in fact rarely be any need for such a noun.)

Recent discussion both here and elsewhere (this post is one among many) has reminded me, too, that this doesn't apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. If it were more normal to use "feminist" (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is "a feminist," which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines "a feminist" and anyone who doesn't quite match up is "not a feminist," could instead have been a discussion of how feminist he is (answer: more than Republicans, and probably more than many Democrats, but not nearly enough). These things are matters of degree.

So, please: make an effort to use words in a way that admits of degree. Attempting to shoehorn everyone into "X" and "not-X" is a counterproductive oversimplification. It hurts our own ability to understand the world, and it hurts our practical ability to reach people. As Jay says, making it about what they are — and I'd add, making that a binary, yes or no question — is a surefire way to get nowhere.

* Nerd joke.

This post appeared originally at Fineness & Accuracy, but I've revised it for posting at Shakesville, to clear up some of my phrasing and expand on some other ideas I didn't feel I'd sufficiently addressed in the original. The post at F&A has been updated to reflect these changes as well.

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