(Amended) commentary on definitions of the word 'feminism'
When I originally came across this image (and some accompanying Facebook comment arguments), I thought of myself as a descriptivist when it came to language, but also believed that while the meanings of words could change over time, related words with related meanings should stay consistent relative to each other. I also believed very strongly that if a certain usage pattern was considered offensive, that the same pattern with components reversed should be considered equally offensive, for consistency.
I now believe that the sentiments in the above paragraph are largely irrelevant and not worth spending emotions on. I called myself a descriptivist, but the above is actually a fairly prescriptivist thing to say, and I no longer hold those opinions.
What I believe instead is something like:
- Words mean whatever the group you're talking to thinks they mean. This can be different from what you think it means, and a good communicator will adapt.
- Words can have different meanings depending on context, the history of the group you're interacting with, whether someone has explicitly defined the word during an interaction, or if the word is being used as community-specific jargon, to name a few. All of these are OK, and none of them need to match a dictionary. If this seems to put a meaning at odds with other meanings or groups, that doesn't need to matter.
- Caring about what you think a word means is often counterproductive when your aim is to communicate, rather than have an argument about what words mean.
- If the intended meaning of a word is clear, no further time needs to be spent on that; you have all the information you need in order to use that word with the person(s) you're talking to.
- In summary: https://xkcd.com/1028/
So, from my current point of view, the entirety of the below could have been skipped, as the picture itself makes the intended meaning of the word clear.
Purely because I don't believe in deleting things, though, this is what I said in 2015:
Someone on my Facebook stream posted this graphic:
Here is my progression of thoughts while I puzzled it out (note that on first reading, I missed the fact that Ansari said "men and women"):
Still confused about this one. My best attempt to reconcile it so far is something like:
"workman" used to mean "worker" -> bad because using "man" to mean "person"
"feminist" used to mean "person who supports equal rights" -> OK because using "woman" to mean "person who needs equal rights" is accurate when men have more rights
future (some hypothetical time when equal rights achieved):
"feminist" used to mean "person who supports equal rights" -> bad because using "woman" to mean "person who needs equal rights" no longer accurate / not inclusive enough
...I'm still not inclined to use "feminist" in place of "equal rights supporter" for myself, though, because my daily thinking is not "women need more rights" but "women [a subset of all sapient beings that it should be unnecessary to draw special attention towards] inherently *have* equal rights. There are some stupid people out there who do draw distinctions between women and other people in order to give them fewer rights, but it is best to treat those stupid people as if what they are doing makes no sense, and point that out to them whenever possible."
The word "feminist" doesn't seem to fit that very well, any more than "supporter of rights for women who are left handed and have black hair and blue eyes" does -- sure, I would certainly support equal rights for women who have black hair and blue eyes, but why stop there?
Extending that, why stop at women? Responding to the graphic, my trouble with using "feminist" to mean "for equal rights" isn't that it's "too aggressive", it's that it isn't aggressive *enough*.
Or, if "feminist" is a language-literal-accuracy-exception meant to encompass the concept "why stop at women?", then why are some language-literal-accuracy-exceptions more OK than others? That is, I don't think anyone saying "workman" or "actor" actually thinks those words only refer to men; they are making a language-literal-accuracy-exception when they use them -- just as this post asks us to do for "feminist". So why is one OK and the other not? History / when the words were coined? Maybe.
Although, there is a parsing of this graphic that does make sense to me, and reconciles with all of the above: maybe Aziz Ansari is talking about subsets and supersets the same way I am, after all. "Feminist" isn't equal to "equal rights supporter"; it's a subset of it in the way that dermatology is a subset of medicine. If I'm a general doctor who treats everything, then when I treat a skin case I'm being a dermatologist.* If I'm a general supporter of equal rights and someone asks me how that applies to women, I'm a feminist.
Is that how it works? Because in that way, I'm quite comfortable calling myself a feminist.
[* This is where things don't quite mesh with Aziz Ansari's quotation -- Ansari doesn't say "general practictioner," or "doctor who treats all diseases," he specifically says "doctor who *primarily* does diseases of the skin" -- but, he also doesn't equate feminism with "equal rights for all sapient beings", he specifically says "men and women". This is a subset/specialization of what an "equal rights practitioner doctor" might do, and for our present culture the most relevant angle to male/female equality is to advocate for boosting female rights, so that's feminism.]
Footnote: Ansari's precision of language aside, I have seen it said online that "feminist" = "supporter of rights for all people" (and presumably extended to "all sapient beings"). I did some Googling to try and find reference to when the word could have taken on this extra meaning and was not successful. From what I can tell, "feminist" was certainly focussed on the "rights for women" side of things during the early parts of the movement. If it currently means more than that, it must have changed at some point... but I was not able to find any specific reference for this, and I also have not encountered any pre-2000 evidence of its use this way. My guess is that it's just a modern, post-Internet-age sloppy use of language thing. If anyone knows of some carefully considered writings or theory that make a case for using "feminism" to mean "equal rights for everyone and not specific to women", please let me know; I'd be interested to read it and will amend this appropriately.