Saturday, September 11, 2021

The -ism Family

9-11 Memorial, New York
photo credit: Bryan Ledgard, Flickr and Wikimedia Commons 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.