Passing bull 185 –Worse labels: -ist and –ism.


One label I would happily ban is the term ‘racist’.  In a world that lacks tolerance, restraint and courtesy, this is a nasty smear that is too often applied without justification.

The Governor of Virginia engaged in an offensive stunt 35 years ago when he was a student, and has offered stupid and evasive explanations that show a consciousness of guilt equal to those of his President.  Does that justify his being called on to resign because it shows that he is ‘racist’?

Liam Neeson is a fine actor who has recently specialised in films of blood-curdling violence. When someone close to him was attacked, he confessed to going out to find someone else from the same group as the attacker and wreaking lethal revenge on him.  Neeson said this was very wrong of him, even though the instinct for revenge may be described as primal.  But are we justified in saying that Neeson is a ‘racist’ because his putative target was black?

People may I suppose have differing views.  I regard each allegation as unfounded to the point of absurdity and to be both cruel and offensive.  But to consider the issue rationally, you need to answer something like the following question.  Does the evidence show that the relevant person (a) engaged in conduct that (b) evidences a propensity of (c) a kind that warrants an adverse moral judgment embodied in the epithet ‘racist’?  You do not need a degree in law or philosophy to stipulate that kind of analysis.  Built into those questions is one relating to time.  Is, for example, the foolish student of 35 years ago the same person as the Governor today?

What is ‘racism’?  In the Shorter OED, you have to go the Addenda to get:

The theory that distinctive human characteristics, abilities etc are determined by race.

That sounds sterile if correct.  I much prefer this from Professor Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (which obviously draws on Kant in its reference to ‘dignity’ and ‘value’).

The inability or refusal to recognise the rights, needs, dignity or value of people of particular races or geographical origins.  More widely, the devaluation of various traits of character or intelligence as ‘typical’ of particular peoples.

The reference to ‘typical’ is good, because the judgment involves typing – and that almost of necessity shows an inability to recognise the rights, dignity or value of each member of the group so typed.  That as it seems to me is the vice – and it almost always is a view of humanity that is warped by prejudice.  Prejudice itself is a form of corruption of thought that is integral to someone engaging in what might be called ‘racism’.

Another factor that has not been articulated is that such conduct is likely to be found to be offensive, insulting, or hurtful to members of the group typed.  But, perhaps the notions of prejudice and hurt are built into or an inevitable consequence of the existing rubric of racism.

So, our question might be reformulated.  Does the past conduct of the governor or actor warrant the finding against him of a propensity (founded in prejudice) to type African Americans as a group in a manner that does not recognise the rights, dignity or value of individual African Americans (and which they are likely to find hurtful)?

With all respect to those who have a different view, I cannot justify an affirmative answer to that question in either case.  We are, after all, talking about a form of communal condemnation, and those on the attack may wish to bear in mind that remark in the Gospels about the wisdom of being the one to cast the first stone.


Then, last week, we had the former London mayor Ken Livingstone eulogising Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and their glorious efforts for the Venezuelan people. If it hadn’t been for US sanctions, Livingstone suggested, Venezuela would still be a socialist utopia. ‘When were oil sanctions introduced?’ Neil asked. Livingstone couldn’t remember. ‘I’ll tell you,’ offered Neil. ‘They were imposed this week.’ That couldn’t be true, Livingstone insisted, it wasn’t ‘what the Venezuelan ambassador told me’. And so it went on.

Delingpole and Livingstone are marginal figures in politics, but bullshit has become, as Frankfurt put it, ‘one of the most salient features of our culture’. You can barely cross the political landscape today without stepping in the stuff.

After his televised debacle, Delingpole wrote an article for Breitbart (of which he is UK executive editor)… saying he is ‘one of those chancers who prefers to… wing it using a mixture of charm, impish humour and nuggets of vaguely relevant info’. It’s how Oxbridge graduates work, he suggested: ‘Their education essentially entails spending three or four years being trained in the art of bullshit.’

The Guardian, 4 February, 2018

It’s bloody everywhere, Mate.

2 thoughts on “Passing bull 185 –Worse labels: -ist and –ism.

  1. Very helpful Geoff.

    I had a long discussion about Liam Neeson with two women last week. I just could not get them to see the virtue in his honesty. And that he had obviously thought about his actions and come to some understanding of what he had done and that it was very wrong.

    The world could do with more folk going through that process.



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