Defining ‘sexism’

In general, words don’t get their “meaning” from definitions but through use – that is, from the habitual linguistic behaviour of people who speak the language. For example, the word ‘rot’ gets its meaning in English from the way English-speakers respond to and interact with various sorts of decay, both literal and metaphorical. German-speakers use the same word (or at least the same combination of three letters) to mean something quite different, something that is again established through habitual behaviour – in this case of German-speakers responding to and interacting with things that are colored red rather than decaying.

The word ‘rot’ was in use in both German and English before anyone tried to explicitly define its various meanings in any sort of dictionary. Definitions in dictionaries can help to guide use, but only when use is already established among competent speakers. Usually, definitions “explain meaning” or “describe use” rather than “create meaning” or “prescribe use”.

This is a fairly new discovery. For centuries, most philosophers assumed there is something like an “essence” of what a word applies to, so that a single criterion can decide whether or not the word applies. In that situation, an explicit definition might stipulate or prescribe how the word should be used from now on, thus in a sense “creating its meaning”. Many also assumed that the meaning of many words is learned through ostensive definition (through pointing, experiencing first-hand, etc.). And there were some who assumed that natural language has a foundational, axiomatic structure like mathematics. As these ideas fell out of favour in recent decades, philosophers tended to lose interest in explicit definitions. The clichéd demand to “define your terms!” no longer sways anyone (if it ever did).

But while we should reject those bad ideas, we mustn’t wholly give up on definitions. Every now and again the explicit definition of words can play an important role in clarifying discussion and in guiding our understanding. Sometimes we disagree with one another, but cannot hope to resolve our conflict of opinion because we are simply “talking past one another”. Habitual behaviour with the same words can differ between us, not because we speak entirely different languages (as with ‘rot’ in English and German), but because we have different theoretical and/or moral commitments, we move in different social circles, we react differently to similar situations, and so on. A definition can help to clarify where we stand, especially if we stand on marginally different ground.

The word ‘rape’ has been in the news a lot recently, because people who use the word obviously differ – to some extent – over what it applies to. Practically everyone agrees it applies to non-consensual sex, of course, and that non-consensual sex is immoral. But no one seems inclined to be very clear about how explicitly “consent” should be given for a sex act not to count as rape. At one extreme, few would expect a man to ask an explicit verbal question as to whether his partner gives her consent to sex – and then to wait for an explicit verbal answer – on every single occasion of a sex act. That would be mad. These things are generally understood through familiarity and “body language”. At the other extreme, few would agree with George Galloway that a man can initiate penetrative sex with a woman who is asleep, as long as consensual sex has already taken place when she was awake. I think most people would count that as rape. I do.

The moronic and ill-informed Missouri Senate nominee Todd Akin is widely criticised for using the term ‘legitimate rape’. I think he meant to use this term to refer to “unambiguous, paradigm cases of rape” rather than “cases of rape which are legally acceptable”. His inept use of language combined with ignorance in thinking rape can’t easily lead to pregnancy are good reasons to neither vote for him nor anyone else from his political party. But it isn’t a good reason to deliberately and dishonestly misinterpret what he probably intended to say.

If non-philosophers differ over the word ‘rape’, philosophers differ over the word ‘sexism’. We disagree over what to count as sexism, and why it is morally wrong. I thus find it unacceptable for any philosopher to appeal to claims such as “we all know what we mean by ‘sexism’”, as someone did recently with me. Philosophers are intellectually obliged to do more than that.

Another philosopher – one I respect greatly and often agree with – defines ‘sexism’ in terms of discrimination, prejudice and stereotyping.

But I have problems with that too. Discrimination is a necessary and central part of everyday cognition, and of morally obligatory allocation of scarce resources. For example, when we drive, we discriminate between one side of the road and the other. We can only give pedestrians the right of way by discriminating footpaths and zebra crossings from other parts of the road. Similarly, when we allocate public funds for breast cancer screening, or to support maternity leave, say, we have to discriminate between those who are likely to benefit and those who aren’t, and in practice that usually means discriminating between men and women. It is cognitively unavoidable and morally perfectly right to exercise that sort of discrimination. So discrimination per se can’t be what makes sexism immoral.

The word ‘prejudice’ refers to unjust sorts of “pre-judging”. But some sorts of “pre-judging” are morally justified. To simply have expectations and to be prepared for the eventuality that these expectations might be realized is often not only morally justified, but an important aspect of practical wisdom. For example, to solve a problem such as the old puzzle of how to transport a fox, a chicken and some grain across a river carrying only two of them at a time, I have to “pre-judge” how foxes and chickens behave. If “prejudice” and “pre-judging” differ only in that the former is immoral and the latter isn’t, how are we to distinguish – or discriminate, as we might put it – one from the other? We must have some independent moral standard for deciding between them – in which case that standard is what we should be appealing to. (This familiar pattern of argument is adapted from Plato’s Euthyphro.)

Much the same applies to stereotyping as to prejudice. In cases where it is immoral, some independent standard of morality must be appealed to – in which case it is that standard rather than stereotyping per se that we should be looking at. Taking stereotyping to be the “objectifying” of prejudices in the form of caricatures and the like, they can be painful, or even harmful. But if they are genuinely harmful, the real problem is the causing of harm rather than stereotyping. We cannot condemn stereotyping as always wrong, because it is often the stuff of humour, and like satire it can even be salutary – it can help to destroy stereotypes by drawing attention to how ridiculous they are. If we call mere humorous stereotyping “sexist”, then we trivialize sexism by dragging it up to the level of the merely annoying or upsetting.

Sexism is much more serious than that. It involves injustice and genuine harm, not just irritation of the sort that each sex has generated in the other since prehistory.

Following Peter Singer, I suggest that we define ‘sexism’ in terms of interests and the thwarting of interests. According to my tentative definition, a sexist act is one that does not give due consideration to someone’s interests because of his or her sex. “Due” consideration is usually “equal” consideration. I may change my mind about this at a later date; till then, I hope this definition helps to clarify where I stand – for now.

An honest (and decent) warning

Just before dropping the second and more effective atomic bomb on Nagasaki, American bombers dropped leaflets bearing the following message (translated from Japanese):


America asks that you take immediate heed of what we say on this leaflet.

We are in possession of the most destructive explosive ever devised by man. A single one of our newly developed atomic bombs is actually the equivalent in explosive power to what 2000 of our giant B-29s can carry on a single mission. This awful fact is one for you to ponder and we solemnly assure you it is grimly accurate.

We have just begun to use this weapon against your homeland. If you still have any doubt, make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima when just one atomic bomb fell on that city.

Before using this bomb to destroy every resource of the military by which they are prolonging this useless war, we ask that you now petition the Emperor to end the war. Our President has outlined for you the thirteen consequences of an honorable surrender: We urge that you accept these consequences and begin the work of building a new, better, and peace-loving Japan.

You should take steps now to cease military resistance. Otherwise, we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons to promptly and forcefully end the war.