My high school days are far enough in the past that they still assigned Shakespeare to students back then. I read Romeo & Juliet freshman year, and remember laughing with my friends about the whole “do you bite your thumb at us” conversation. After all, insults and shaming tactics have a shelf-life of sorts, and the biting of thumbs is archaic to say the least.
I bring it up because America is rapidly approaching the point when cries of “racist” will become similarly archaic.
I was raised at a time when racism was the ultimate sin, and, of course, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia have all been added alongside racism to form the four pillars of thoughtcrime. Regardless of what one’s actions may entail, having discriminatory attitudes is taught as the original sin. Admittedly, this sense of proportion still dominates most American institutions today. Most public figures and institutions still scramble to defend themselves when anyone insults them by applying these labels.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that an enormous change is upon us with respect to these indictments. I was reminded of this in the aftermath of President Trump’s tweets about how certain Congresswomen should try pulling the plank out of their original countries’ eyes before worrying about the speck in America’s. Naturally, the usual cries of racism were raised in response, but this time… nothing happened. An impeachment attempt failed spectacularly , his support actually rose, and he even got a bunch of people chanting “send her back” regarding Congresswoman Omar. Our dying institutions may still get the vapors when the whatever-ist labels are bandied about, but the people simply care less and less.
This shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve written before about how the left has been rigorously destigmatizing racism. We are much likely to encounter the label in response to innocuous microaggressions rather than any real prejudice (the Betsy Ross flag being the most recent kerfuffle.) We all see the blatant hypocrisy where charges of racism only stick when applied to conservatives. What’s more, when academics redefined racism as a matter of structures of privilege in order to make sure only white people could be guilty, they also removed it from the moral realm altogether. After all, there’s nothing immoral about being born into a particular place in society. Likewise, teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish is the epitome of privilege, and far from being a sin, it’s actually a genuine responsibility of parents and society.
The same is quickly going to become the case for the others–sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Racism may have become ridiculous, but these others always have been. The amount of reality-denying that’s required for these charges to be taken seriously is entirely unsustainable–a prospect which no doubt terrifies the people who have built their power and cultural significance on these labels. I suspect the increasingly forced outrage we encounter today has more to do with that than it does with actually helping anyone.
In the long run, racism as the ultimate evil will be just another cultural fad–a term that was truly shaming for a time before becoming as obscure as biting your thumb at someone. And its ok to let it go. We have better words to describe the genuine evils that were originally covered by ‘racism’ umbrella, and we’re all better off without the political bludgeon that the term has become. As for the people and institutions that insist on tying themselves to these sinking ships? Well, they’re effictively deciding to become just as archaic.
I’m writing from the point of view of a 70-year-old Australian, because I am old enough to know what the word originally meant. (We used to call it “racialism” then.) At school I was brought up hearing about the evils of racial segregation in the US. Racism had an obvious meaning: mistreating people because of their race. Note that the important point is mistreatment, not race. We have gone from the sublime proposition that people should not be mistreated because of their race, to the questionable one that all distinctions of race are bad, to the ridiculous one that everybody has an equal right to migrate to Australia (or the US, as the case may be).