I've already written about some of my reactions to this post on Alas, but when Heart wrote about racism and classism, I realised I had fundamental objections to the -ism tag. I think left-wing blogs are particularly likely to use these terms: as well as racism and sexism, it's classism, sizism and able-bodyism, and so reading these blogs has crystalised my objections.
To be totally clear it's not that I don't think these issues are important. It's that I think the -ism tag makes it sounds like these forms of oppression operate in the same way, when I think they operate in very different ways. I have a similar problem with the term 'identify politics' - I think the movements that have grown up to fight these issues are as different as they are the same.
First lets do a quick history of the words. The term 'racism' was coined in the 1930, and a resonably standard dictionary definition looks like this:
1: the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other racesSexism was coined by the feminist movement in the 1960s, and obviously based on the word 'racism' (I've seen documents from the late 1960s when the term 'sexism' was footnoted and explained). It became widespread at a time feminist theory and analysis was in its infancy. All the other terms have come into use more recently
2: discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race
The problem to me of using -ism words to describe oppression is that the tag has a certain set of implications, they imply that the problem is a problem with indviduals, and they don't imply any analysis of power. So you talk about 'institutional sexism', because without it 'sexism' is assumed to be the act of an individual. You can talk about Maori racism against Pakeha, because there's no assumption that 'racism' or 'sexism' involve power.
So, to me, neither 'racism' or 'sexism' really describe what's going on. In New Zealand I think the term 'colonialism' is more useful to describe relationships between Pakeha and Maori, because it's more specific. While in America the term 'white supremacy' is often used.
The use of terms like 'classism', 'sizism', and 'able-bodyism' just exacerbate this problem. To me, the term 'classism' implies that the problem with class is discrimination, when I think any analysis of class has to start with the extraction of surplus labour. As I said on Alas: The problem with the class system is that people get to live off someone else's work, not just that they make fun of their accents while doing so.
Meanwhile 'sizism' and 'able-bodyism' imply that we already have an analysis of the body in society, and that it is analogous to the systems of race and gender. I'm not convinced on either point.
Homophobia and Hetrocentric, on the other hand, do a pretty good job (between them) of describing what is actually going on (although they still have individualistic over-tones). I think rather than using terms that imply that all oppressions work the same way, we should use terms that analyse of how different oppressions actually work.
I find I'm writing more about language far more than I would have expected. I think there is a link between precise language and useful analysis. If we're not quite sure what's going on, it makes it a hell of a lot harder to explain it.