Getting Yourself an Ism

25 03 2016

click on the image to play the audio clip

As I was fielding comments from my last blog, I suddenly recalled the scene from Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. Grampa shows remarkable prescience when he goes on his mild rant about “ismmania”. Communism, Fascism, voodooism. Whenever somebody has a problem, they just go out and get themselves an “ism” and it fixes them right up. He concludes his monologue by muttering, “Nowadays, they say ‘Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’”

Aside from the almost spooky anticipation of the US government’s military stance in general, and the Republican front runners’ bellicose saber-rattling (the leading Democrat isn’t much better), I find the bit on “isms” to be very interesting. We humans love classifying things so we can turn abstract thoughts and complex practices in nouns that we can wave around and point to. Instead of spending several minutes to an hour (or more) describing a very complicated system of government and economics, we can just say, “Communism” and be done with it.

Last week I talked about Feminism. And in the course of writing the blog, as well as reading and answering the comments, I realized how hopeless it is to communicate anything of significance by merely referring to “feminism”. It is a bit like referring to “God.” The word means something different to damn near everyone. Ask someone to define “feminism”, and you get responses that run the gamut from highly positive to highly pejorative. People equate feminism with man-hating, with fighting Patriarchy, with female solidarity, with the liberation of both sexes from stereotypes, with a struggle to make women equal to men, or to make them superior to men. Each individual is convinced that their definition of feminism is the correct one, the most accurate and insightful, and is the one everyone else should accept. We essentially become Humpty Dumpty, insisting that when we use a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

This is true to varying degrees with other “isms”. Take the raging controversy around the term “Socialism”. Like feminism, the word evokes a wide range of reactions from positive to negative, and further questioning reveals a tweaking of the definition of socialism that pushes it in a positive or negative direction. What does the word really mean? Humpty Dumpty aside, we’d first need to agree on an authority we all respect to arbitrate the dispute. And if you have studied etymology and the history of language, you realize what an intricate dance takes place between actual usage and prescriptive definition.

Going back to Grampa Vanderhof, it is also true that when people have problems they tend to try to find an “ism” to solve it. Often it is religious: Buddhism, Paganism, Evangelism, Mysticism, Mormonism. It can be political: liberalism, conservatism, Libertarianism, or Marxism. It can be more general: pragmatism, optimism, pacifism or activism. We adopt an “ism” and become an “ist”.  A Taoist or a Fundamentalist.  An environmentalist or a hedonist.  A nihilist or an anarchist.  When we meet someone new, it is easier to just say, “I’m an Atheist,” than it is to explain how you acknowledge that it is impossible to prove the existence or non-existence of God, but you have become firmly convinced that the evidence indicates non-existence, and although you acknowledge the possibility you could be wrong, you are confident that you aren’t.

Or you might say, “I’m a classicist,” and you’d have to explain anyway.

Sometimes it’s not a term you’d ever self-identify with, but it’s convenient short-hand to describe what you think of someone else, like an egotist, narcissist or racist.  Sometimes the term has a different suffix form. You can become a vegetarian or a humanitarian or a skeptic. You can embrace self-actualization, or macrobiotics, or dianetics. You can declare yourself to be homosexual or bisexual, bipolar or autistic. In our constant struggle to understand who we are, what we believe, and what others are and believe, we clutch at the short-cut of isms and their kin. Even though a single word can hardly capture the subtle variations, nuances and complexities of the underlying concept (they may share broad traits in common, but if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one) and the meaning of words can twist and morph with usage, we just can’t do without these terms, even if we use them at our peril, and at the risk of having our true meaning misunderstood.

Grampa Vanderhof, in that same speech, mentions Lincoln, quoting him, “With malice towards none and charity to all.” That, dear readers, is an aphorism. It’s an “ism” we could all do well to embrace.




One response

25 03 2016
Mary Jolles

Interesting discussion! I try to stay away from aligning myself with any “isms” because none of them truly express my thinking. Situations and problems shift and change too rapidly for any one “ism” to be completely applicable. And, as you say, everyone has a different understanding of what any particular “ism” means. It makes it very difficult to have a discussion, especially between people of different generations, unless the two people talking are open-minded and good listeners, willing to entertain new definitions of old terms, for instance.

I just finished reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set A Watchman.” I was curious to find out why people had jumped all over a work of fiction. I realize now why Harper Lee didn’t publish the book when she wrote it. Even today I believe people’s thinking about southern racism and prejudice is so swaddled in our fifty years’ history of civil rights struggles that they can’t see or understand what Harper Lee was describing. Scout, in fury and outrage, fires name after name at Atticus, like a series of darts, trying to hit the bullseye: racist, bigot, hypocrite. None of the names quite fit, as first Henry, then Atticus’s brother, and finally Atticus himself, try to explain the complexity of trying to live as a good human being in an imperfect society.

I remember the painful discussion I had with the school faculty and staff when our first minority family moved to town, and we confronted the hidden forms of “racism” that people practiced in all ignorance, not out of maliciousness, but which caused harm without them realizing it because they didn’t know and didn’t understand. Was that racism? I didn’t think that was the appropriate word myself–“ignorance” would have been better–but it was the closest word we had to define what was happening, and the hurt and confusion among people who meant well and did not think of themselves as “racist” was profound.

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