By: Chase Cabot
Whenever I make the mistake of getting myself into an Internet fight with Mens’ Rights Activists, anti-feminists (misogynists), racists, classists, etc, they always bring out a flawless, foolproof tactic: quote the dictionary until I want to hit them with it. Once I tried to argue that gender is connected to, but not determinant of sex, and some Internet reactionary quoted the definition for “gender.” According to the dictionary, gender is the “state of being male or female.” Looks like I need to pack up and go home, a group of white men created a definition of gender years ago, so that’s reality.
Except it’s not. The dictionary is a picture of the English language that is constantly being revised and updated to follow evolving social norms. Societies grow and change with time, and so do the words we use and the contexts around them. The dictionary couldn’t possibly be a perfect picture of meaning in a society changing faster than ever before. So, when a right wing bigot on the Internet tries to write off the experiences of trans people, or black people, or women, or anyone else, they turn to something they think denotes “objective” reality. They’re trying to reach back in time to old contexts of the words “oppression,” “gender,” and any other evolving term. It’s an attempt to silence those who are pushing for broader recognition of their problems in society.
For instance, the word oppression is losing its specific context as overt repression and constraint. Instead, people are accepting feminist and antiracist definitions of oppression as structural problems which continue to marginalize many groups of people years after their explicit oppression ended. People of color are still highly disadvantaged in college admissions, targeted at higher rates by police, and pushed out of neighborhoods through redlining. Working class people don’t have the money for a better education, trapping them in low wage, dangerous jobs. Women still make less than men in their jobs, and are subject to violence and harassment on a daily basis. These are only a few drops of water in a sea of troubles forced on marginalized groups. Yet by old definitions none of these people are “oppressed” because there isn’t legislation against them. But these structural inequalities result in bad outcomes based simply on birth anyway. Trying to use the dictionary to write off these problems is dishonest, and a desperate tactic by an increasingly irrelevant right.
It’s an arrogant fallacy to think we know everything about ourselves and others. And reactionaries fall into that trap when they argue that dictionary definitions are a perfect map of human language and experience. We’re still learning, and always will be. We’re complex creatures, always changing, and thus there will always be new things to learn. The right can never change that, and the public is increasingly aware of the need for new definitions and new contexts to use words in. Because of this, the right is desperate, they’re an animal backed into a corner with nothing left to do but throw the dictionary at anyone they don’t like.