Language and Racism.

Why precision is a vital weapon in the fight against racism.

Steve Peters
Jul 3 · 4 min read
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A peculiar feature of the truth is that it’s funny. Actually, wait. The truth is clearly not always funny. What I mean is that there’s a certain joy that reliably accompanies the truth. And that this joy will, under the right circumstances, make people laugh. Great comedians all understand this. The Richard Pryors, the George Carlins, the Dave Chappelles. All of them are (or were) masters of utilising this hidden feature of the truth.

It’s why Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special 8:46 was so powerful. It’s why Richard Pryor was (and still is) so revered for standing on stage and telling us, often with excruciating honesty, how imperfect he was. It’s why George Carlin’s commentary on language and politics is still as valuable and relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Take this clip from his 1990 special “Doin’ It Again” for example:

If you look carefully, you’ll notice there aren’t any jokes here. There are no clever turns of phrase or skilful subversions of our expectations. All Carlin does is draw our attention to the imprecision with which we use language. He doesn’t even need to explain the point he’s making because we already know. He holds up a mirror, and we laugh.

Anyway, I was reminded of this phenomenon this morning, when I read a quote from, of all people, Ben Shapiro. I tend to disagree with at least 80% of the things that Ben Shapiro says, so imagine my surprise to find my self nodding along in agreement at this quote:

In the interests of maintaining my track record of disagreeing with Ben Shapiro, I don’t buy his assertion that the charges he refers to are deliberately vague. I don’t believe that people use terms like “institutional racism” in an attempt to obscure the truth, just as I don’t believe that people use terms like “post-traumatic stress disorder” to obscure the suffering people are enduring.

But this imprecision still leads to the same problem that Carlin pointed to 30 years ago. The vaguer our language becomes, the harder it becomes to understand exactly what we’re talking about. When we chant “no justice, no peace” for example, what exactly do we mean by justice? Is it just for George Floyd? Is it for the next innocent civilian killed by the police? Will we riot for as long as our justice systems are imperfect? Aren’t practical steps to reform better than the threat of violence?

Racism isn’t being offended while black, it’s being offended because you’re black or white, or any other colour. Racism isn’t having something bad happen to you whilst black, it’s having something bad happen to you because you’re black or white, or any other colour. Racism isn’t an innocent mistake or even a moment of ignorance, it’s a state of mind made possible by the bafflingly misguided belief that people who don’t look like you are the enemy.

Racism is, first and foremost, idiotic. We should lean into this fact, not hide it behind complex social theory or even the atrocities which it has enabled. Racism is a symptom of the stupidity that lives in us all. Yes, it’s present in our systems and our institutions as well. Of course it is, we built them! But the solution doesn’t lie simply in dismantling them, it lies in ensuring that whatever we build to replace them isn’t simply stupid in a new way. The solution isn’t in pointing out enemies, but in turning them into allies. The solution isn’t in fighting, but in being as precise as possible in recognising what we need to fight. Otherwise the pain just gets buried under jargon.

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