Merriam-Webster Changes Definition of 'Racism,' and May Have Defeated Their Own Point

P. Gardner Goldsmith | June 10, 2020
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It’s the kind of story that echoes citations of postmodernist linguistic maneuvering in the decades-long battle over the politicization of language.

And, at first blush, it could be viewed as another victory for the collectivist idiocracy.

CNN “reports” (it’s always a challenge to call what CNN does “reporting,” but perhaps dictionaries will redefine that word soon, as well) that Merriam-Webster Dictionary just changed the definition of “racism” after a young woman wrote to complain.

They begin, as journalism students are taught, with the “personal side” of the story:

Kennedy Mitchum wasn't expecting much when she emailed Merriam-Webster last month, but she wanted to let the dictionary publisher know that she thought its definition of the word racism was inadequate.

Okay. This could break one of many ways. But, given that this is CNN, and the dictionary is Merriam-Webster, it’s likely not going to end well. Or is it?

Mitchum has gotten into a lot conversations about racism and injustice where people have pointed to the dictionary to prove that they're not racist.

And to what might an individual turn to show that he or she is not racist when someone accuses him or her of being so?

Why, the original primary definition Merriam-Webster offers:

a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

This primary definition is, of course, based on a recognition of prejudice, and mistakenly assuming things that are not only not correct, but that which have, often, led to governmentally instituted policies that favor one group of people over another.

The factor here being race - but the favoritism or antagonism of the state are manifold, and wrong in every instance.

And it’s this “institutional” side that Ms. Mitchum brought to the attention of the dictionary editors, who apologized to her, and changed their entry.

Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that their entry also defines racism as ‘a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles’ and ‘a political or social system founded on racism,’ which would cover systematic racism and oppression.

And this is a mixed bag.

Like definitions of many other kinds of “-isms” such as “socialism,” “communism,” “totalitarianism” and more, the idea of fitting "racism" into the slot of a “political system founded on racism” seems, at first, to make sense.

Of course, one needs to remember that a political system based on racism is not racism itself. Historically, people are racist, not the things they create. If a racist person made, say, a KKK hood, or wore blackface for a college party, one would not say that the inanimate objects were “racist”; they were used by a racist person to send a message that might be supportive of a racist belief. The KKK hood might be offensive to the beholder, but an inanimate item cannot have its own motivations.

So, logically, the second definition isn’t really necessary, because any political policy based on or promoting a racist predicate loosely can be described as “racist,” just like any policy based on or promoting socialism can be called “socialist.”

And this is where the postmodernists might have fumbled, because this definition of racism – i.e. “systemic” racism, as we so often hear bandied about without clarity – specifically denotes government policies that single out people for their race.

Which means that the contemporary government predilection of breaking everyone into racial categories – from checking Census numbers of certain races, to any and all government handouts and regulations founded in splitting people according to racial distinctions and political prejudices about said races – would fall under the new, secondary Merriam-Webster definition of “racism.”

If any kind of racism can be systemic, it would be that which is supported by statute, the “system” of the state.

As the legendary 18th Century Scottish economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith wrote in Part Six of his 1759 book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, the “man of system” is the politician, who would force people to conform, who would “improve” them through bitter taxation, harsh punishments, threats of arrest, and statutory mandates.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it… He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

Hence, it is easy to see that a “system” forcing said man’s racial beliefs and prejudices on others could be labeled “racism”, and how, in that case, all government policies that prejudge people based on race are, therefore, “racist” in nature.

So it’s possible that this social-justice move by Merriam-Webster could backfire if people assiduously apply this standard as it is written when it applies to politics.

The problem is the second half of this new second definition, the part about a “social system” that could be “racist”.

First, there are so many kinds of “social systems” – each with its own interior systems – that defining them according to any standard is difficult. But let’s assume this is possible, for, surely, one can recognize a racist person or group of people in one’s society.

The problem that really underlies this portion of the new definition is that it’s the lever of “social justice” advocates – who don’t really advocate for “social justice.” They advocate for political “reform” of what they cite as, or argue to be, “social injustice,” - reforms that, by their very nature and as defined by Merriam-Webster, cannot be anything but racist in order to “fix” the problem.

There’s a catch-22 in turning to the state to “repair the dysfunction of societal racism,” which is that the only way for the state to “repair the dysfunction” is for it to institute policies based on race, which now is, by definition, racism.

But this kind of didactic and fundamental breakdown of the modus operandi of statist “social justice” warriors is not what we will see when people cite Merriam-Webster’s new definition. Fairness in scholarship and the definition of words is not part of the plan.

After all, this is the same dictionary that in 2019 officially accepted the faulty, postmodernist, notion that the plural pronoun “they” could be used for a singular subject when that subject’s gender was unknown or a person claimed to be “non-binary”. Its editors even cited an old piece by Emily Dickinson in which she used “they” and “their” when referring to the indefinite “anyone.”

Which, as any emergency room doctor, cop, or crime reporter might attest, is a big no-no.

Emergency room doctors waiting for an ambulance to deliver a patient do not accept “they” over the radio as a precursor for surgery or medicine prep. Is it one gunshot victim, or two? Male, or female? These distinctions are important, and people on the edge of life and death can’t fool around with blurry terminology.

Sadly, Merriam-Webster not only embraced blurry terminology long ago, it now embraces a lever of political action that will, undoubtedly, be employed to further expand the influence of government over people’s lives.

Which is precisely how racism has manifested in its most pernicious and deadly forms.