On -isms and -ists

  • No humanist or feminist was harmed while writing this

Up until a few years ago, one used to be in the happy position of being able to go a couple of weeks without bumping into some sort of an -ist – a feminist, a hard-determinist, a humanist, etc. Those were the good old days – at least in our part of the world. Today, there are so many -ists going around that a man should consider himself lucky if he manages to avoid encountering one every hour – at any rate, on the social media even if not in person. Of course, most of these -isms (with their corresponding -ists) originated in the West; but it was only a matter of time before they won popularity here.

It’s not that these -isms don’t have their origin in some very good intentions – most of them start life as well-meaning reactions to undesirable and extreme things. Of course, the Bard has warned the world about where good intentions often lead to. For good intentions notwithstanding, it’s in their oversimplification of the issues as well as in their inevitable tendency to become more and more exaggerated that these -isms are problematic. So that before long they start hovering around the silliness region (to put it nicely), before crossing the craziness threshold. What follows that is hardly any better because if we know one thing about craziness, it’s that there can be more and more of it.

Consider secularism. It started with all the good intentions: to curb the excesses of the church on the one hand; and on the other hand, against the exaggerated emphasis of mystics on the other-worldliness of existence. It started by pointing out that the temporal world mattered too. Soon however, typically of all -isms, the position became exaggerated to: the temporal world was all that mattered, or even all that there was. Gradually then, secularism itself became very much like a religion (replacing one tyranny with another), although it’s usually made more palatable by claiming that it only concerns itself with the affairs of the state and nation; while the citizens, in their personal and social capacities, are free to follow their religions. Which isn’t true of course if one considers (say) the laws against the headscarf in many secular countries. Besides, the very concept of compartmentalisation of the temporal and the spiritual (or the this-worldly or the other-worldly) is itself a secular one, not shared by many religious people. Also, the secularist claim that human beings don’t need God (or any metaphysics for that matter) to be able to decide their collective matters is a very exaggerated one, which is not borne out by facts. For instance, the collective human intellect, in all these centuries, hasn’t been able to figure out what should be done to murderers. The proposed ‘solutions’ range from death to rehabilitation, with everything in between. The same goes for inheritance laws among other things. Unsurprisingly, the Muslims (rightly) didn’t approve of secularism. The unfortunate reaction of some of them against it however was another -ism, namely Islamism (as if we needed another item on the long list).

These -isms have impressive sounding names. Humanism or liberalism, for example. But, howsoever nice-sounding they may be to start with, they become exaggerated over time, sometimes providing much comic relief in the process. The latest crusades of liberalism, for example, are movements against ‘anti-animal language’ (for example, replacing ‘Kill two birds with one stone’ by ‘Feed two birds with one scone’). Or fighting on behalf of people who identify themselves neither as male nor female. The NYC now officially recognises 31 different gender identities. Many of these new genders are now insisting on alternate personal pronouns. Thanks to the efforts of the leftists then, ‘Did you just assume my gender’ is not a joke any more. Compared to ‘zie’, ‘zim’, ‘zir’, ‘per’ and ‘em’, the formerly clumsy ‘non-sexist’ he/she, him/her formulas (or the cringeworthy ‘they’ for third person singular) don’t sound that bad now, do they? That’s evolution for you right there.

On a more serious note, the saner positions on any issue usually lie somewhere in between the extreme ones. Take the question of free-will and predestination. According to determinism, humans are nothing more than automata blindly running around having fooled themselves that they have free will. The adherents of libertarianism, on the other hand, are blind to the role of habits and muscle memory (so to speak) that constrain one’s actions in any given situation as much as external ‘hard’ facts do, but which are potentially changeable, especially over time by one’s own efforts. True, some -isms are formed by combining the strong points of two contrasting -isms, but this is often done by changing the definition of one or more terms of the debate – a case in point would be compatibilism. Soon, this new -ism also ends up having a fanatical following and suffers from the usual problem that -isms generally have.

Adherence to labels that seek to artificially compartmentalise life’s issues neatly, although counter-productive, is unfortunately here to stay

Adherence to labels that seek to artificially compartmentalise life’s issues neatly, although counter-productive, is unfortunately here to stay. Oversimplification and exaggeration are two common human frailties. Add to it the perception in our part of the world that if one is an -ist of any ilk, then ipso facto one must be an enlightened, sensitive, or at any rate a thinking individual. While the author’s own experience is the exact opposite of this, he will resist the temptation to hastily generalise it, and provide a possible foundation for something like Look-how-clever-I-am-ism. The world already has far too many -isms than it knows what to do with.