Saturday, September 11, 2021

The -ism Family

by Bryan Ledgard is licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic

Large, or even dangerously dominant, in people's minds and hearts is a family of words in English with the suffix -ism.

We can all too quickly think of some branch or other of the -ism family tree. The favorites of the 20th century were the feuding cousins "Fascism" and "Communism." Persistently adversarial also are "Conservatism" and "Liberalism" and "Radicalism" and "Anarchism," seeking the attention of potential devotees. And, on the left or the right, the often noisy claims of "Libertarianism" might pop up, sometimes with the implied question, "what about me?" Or, the calls of "Environmentalism" that ask the question, "what about all of us?"

Then there are the regrettably ever-enduring and insidious presumptions of "Racism" and "Sexism." They manage to keep finding followers among legislators, judges, employers, teachers, and parents, as well as some devotees of "Professionalism," or everyday individuals, all of whom keep blighting lives through the centuries. 

There's also "Cannibalism" or the arguably, analogically unrelated "Authoritarianism," or "Corporatism," or "Nationalism," or "Nazism," or "Tribalism," or "Populism" or "Cronyism" or "Denialism." Do we need to pay more attention to asking which of these branches in the -ism family are intertwined, or true, or phony? And, where are we with "Modernism," or "Postmodernism," or "Relativism"? To mix metaphors some, this is just the tip of the -ism iceberg. The complexity and scale of the -ism family appear substantial.

Of course, "Individualism" is a shining light surely, perhaps the 21st century's modern champion of -isms? It's easy to add to the catalog of the family members, and we need to exercise care about whether to include some in the family, such as "Opportunism," observed of course only in others. 

Then there are the frequent fellow travelers of "Cultism," "Fundamentalism," "Evangelism," and "Originalism." Which might additionally stimulate questions about what happened to "Realism?" So often not welcome in the -ism family.

Thanks to the creativity that language permits, we can be swamped with "Neologisms" seeking inclusion in the -ism family. This can be fine, even enjoyable, for anyone with interest in words.

Much trouble comes though when blind devotion to an -ism fuels the underpinning ideology that ignites emotions like greed and hate and fear. Deep-seated greed, hate, and fear drive nasty behavior. And, neither greed nor hate nor fear need look very far for family feuds to copy, like the generations of Hatfields and McCoys, or the Campbells and McDonalds, and who can forget the "joys" of the Montagues and Capulets? When blind devotion is a tinder box, "Extremism" makes common sense not so common.

With a history of misfortune and tragedy draped over so many -isms, it's reasonable to wonder what will ever slow the propagation and proliferated impact of the -ism family? Mostly, -isms don't comply with control, especially self-control. However much civil society attempts avoidance, containment, or elimination of -isms, these labels, libels, and lip-service to thinking will often just keep on keeping on. 

Look at the conveniently recurring use of "Socialism," blathered about in efforts to make outcasts of people from the left, the right, and the middle. Then there are "Nudism" and "Idealism," which sound suspiciously similar; best make outcasts of both, just in case. Of course, there's always difficult-to-deal-with "Hedonism," along with "Behaviorism," and digging deep into the barrel of despair there's the rag-bag with estranged relatives, "Sadism" and alter ego, "Masochism." 

And, no need to create "Joyism" or "Extaticism" just because a favorite word of humanity misses family membership by a letter. Yet anything like these could be welcome to crack the door on some real joy, or everyday peace, or safety at least, from those resurgent expressions of "Elitism," now in the form of the anti-vax, anti-mask devotees who dictate life in this COVID world, as threats to themselves and everyone else.

Fortunately, the great value of language and its relation to thinking is that the ability of each of us to create our own landscape for living is within each of us. Whether or not we'll ever have command of all the genealogical branches of the -ism family is unclear. Meantime, do you think it would help to think carefully before resorting to -ism talk?

Maybe too, we should listen to George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about such matters. It's more than time to heed his good advice to jeer loudly enough to send some of these lumps of verbal refuse into the dustbin where they belong.

9-11, Never Forget.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


Studying criminal law way back when, a required class assignment was to provide a full report on a court proceeding. Finding a case to audit was probably part of the test, since this required locating the right noticeboard in the old courthouse downtown, firstly to choose from the list of hearings for the day, then to navigate the musty corridors of the old courthouse building, to be in the right place at the right time. And, this also turned out to be an early and unexpected experience of humor-in-law, before television audiences enjoyed the now dated but legendary British comedy series, Rumpole of the Bailey

The case I happened to choose was the preliminary hearing of three accused men, caught after a bank robbery gone wrong. The getaway car was an Austin A30, well-known in British Commonwealth countries at the time as an old family sedan, commonly referred to as a "baby Austin," not noted for speed. 

The tip-off to the arresting police was the car's license plate on the rear of the car, observed to be dangling vertically, just held by one shoe-lace; with the second shoe-lace that had kept this license plate horizontal and in place no longer visible, having surrendered its duty somewhere in the hurly-burly of getting away from the bank.

Revealed to the police, firmly-affixed, horizontal, and easily read underneath was the original license plate of this stolen car. So, the police pulled the baby Austin to the side of the road on suspicion, and the jig was up when pistols and canvas bags of bank money were sighted. 

With these facts, like a scene from Gilbert and Sullivan or another farce, it only occasionally gets any better when studying law! Not sure how the presiding magistrate kept a straight face as the prosecutor outlined each piece of evidence.

Equally remarkable was the dialog that occurred during recesses in the morning's proceedings, when the magistrate was not present. The police prosecutor and the accused men evidenced almost back-slapping "friendliness," apparently well-known to each other, with other police in the courtroom smiling discretely, appreciating these exchanges. Unsurprisingly, the prosecutor was optimistic about bringing a case to finally secure the three accused for a time, at Her Majesty's pleasure. 

The defense lawyer was more braggadocious in retelling, to anyone who'd listen, tit-bits of conversations he'd had with his clients during their dinners at his home; he was a big talker, combining poor dress sense with a diamond ring on one hand, and with a slickness just a touch akin to the character of the lawyer, Vinny, in the movie My Cousin Vinny. Yet he lacked most of the smarts of the movie lawyer. 

After these proceedings, I didn't track the outcome of the trial or any appeals; time to follow that progress was required for other assignments and, in those days, would also have required continuous checking of the right noticeboard in the courthouse; but it didn't look too promising for the three accused men during this preliminary hearing, which resulted in a clear case to answer.

Updating to the present in the United States, some of the more than 500 cases in progress against the January 6 terrorists at the Capitol present facts strangely similar. The terrorists' plans were large, but disconnected, and flawed enough in execution to permit over 300 million Americans to dodge, for now, the intended result of some 9,000 terrorists, who injured about 140 police while attempting to violently overturn democratic government. Many behaviors of the terrorists were as bizarre and darkly comedic as those of the bank robbers.  

Of course, anyone facing armed attackers, whether bank robbers or terrorists, with life put at risk, sees no humor. Bizarre as these events look in the rear-view mirror, they're a stark reminder of the importance to anticipate, pursue, and prosecute criminals soonest and well. 

Dumb luck is a fickle ally.