February 12, 2011

Racism - The Semantics

The following is a letter to editor (The Sun) which was not published. The writer then sent it to me. With the writer's permission, I'm reproducing the letter in its entirety here:

I have followed KK Tan's articles on racism in The Sun (July 29, Aug 26, Sept 15, Sept 24) and despite Zalifah Azman's letter (oct 4) I can only agree with the views of Leow Mei Chern(Sept 30) that redefining terms doesnt help and may be even more damaging.

The meaning of a word depends on the way it is used by the people who speak the language - and dictionaries record and describe this in their definitions. The meaning of a word cannot be what an individual thinks the word ought to mean. Everyone has a right to one's own opinion; but if you redefine a word in your own way you are going to be linguistically incorrect, and not calling a spade a spade! The words racism and racist appear regularly in the media and as far as I can see they have been used appropriately to mean what they do in Malaysia and the rest of the english speaking world. Racism refers to dislike or unfair treatment of people based on a belief that one's own race is best, rather than K.K Tan's insistence on a 'systematic oppression of one or more races by another'.

When a section of a crowd at a football game in some European countries verbally abuses a player because he is black, this is despicable and it is racist, even though you wouldn't call it systematic oppression of a race. Hence Fifa has a campaign to kick racism out of the game. The slogan is 'kick racism', not 'kick out racial chauvinism', which has the virtue of being accurate as well as shorter and snappier.

One can readily acknowledge that some forms of racism are much, much worse than others, but racism is racism whatever the degree. Stealing a million dollars is worse than a thousand dollars, but both are theft. Poverty in Malaysia is no where as bad as other places in the world but we still talk about eradicating poverty. The difference between manslaughter and murder, however, is not one of degree. The former is unintentional killing.

There have been a couple of wilful misinterpretations here:
1. No one has denied that racism experiences by black people as slaves in America or under apatheid in South Africa was worse than racism experienced by others.
2. I don't think anyone has accused Tan of trying to excuse or downplay a problem or of pretending it doesn't exist - its just that and danger of this happening through redefinition should be avoided.
Tan is surely well intentioned (at least in his first two articles) and the sad thing is that the 'seven sins' he describes, and the proposed public declaration may deserve to be read and considered carefully, reflected upon, and discussed. But I feel that all the good work done is undermined by the redefinition issue.

Any attempt to impose or prescribe one's own definition of an accepted term can only bring confusion and obfuscation which is unhelpful for an honest and correct analysis of a social problem.

-Linguistic Observer