The tendency towards nounism.

This is perhaps not a complete idea, but a number of observations revolving around one topic: the tendency towards “nounism,” that is, of turning verbs (actions) into nouns (identity).

One may reasonably argue that this transformation of actions into identities guides much of anti-feminist thought nowadays. I think the reason behind that is that it gives them the moral high ground: actions can be reasonably opposed, but opposing other people’s identities is usually seen as bigotry. A similar reasoning, I think, underlies the pathologisation of minorities: if they can’t help being “defective,” then they should be pitied, not oppressed.

So from that we get nounism. And sure, there’s a degree to which this is natural, albeit unfortunate. We are not people who have sex, or don’t have sex, with other people, we are heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, asexuals. We are not people who happen to fall within a certain class at a certain time, we are the rich, the poor, the middle-class. We are not people with a certain personal cluster of political opinions, we are right-wingers or left-wingers, radicals, reactionaries, and so on. And there is a certain degree to which, yes, it would make language more ponderous to always say “a person who holds right-wing positions” or “a person who has sex with people of their gender.”

But the problem with nounism is that it erases our common humanity, and it helps us objectify each other. Is a woman who engages in prostitution a “prostitute” or a “prostituted women”? Radical feminists write the latter so we remember that the woman in question is, still, a human being, not a sexual object, and that she deserves rights. We may not be in danger of objectifying bisexuals or middle-class people, but in other cases the danger may be too great to “noun.” It may not be a good idea to “noun” people who are poor or prostituted women, if we want to keep thinking of them as human beings with rights. Otherwise people who are already prejudiced may be encouraged into imagining these people as a monolithic block that is not “like us.”

Talking about us versus them, I think nounism relates to the manichean worldview as well. While it’s not exactly nounism, when we think in that mode we do think of people, ideas and things as “good” or “bad” divorced from context. Nounism is also used in religions and cults to create the dichotomies they rely upon to divide and conquer (the saved/the unsaved, believers/doubters, suppressive people, angels/angelic/demons/demonic, and so on).

Nounism makes our reality tidy and neat. We don’t have to think about dissociating people from their actions: people become their actions. It’s a way to simplify social realities that are really complicated.

This can be used like a cudgel, like Ray Comfort’s “have you ever lied in your life? then you are a liar” ploy. This is a clumsy attempt at nounism, and it fails because we are very well aware that doing something once does not justify nouning someone: lying once in your life, or even a dozen times, does not make you a liar. We do have the concept that in order to be justified nouning, the nouning must refer to something habitual, ongoing, or innate in the person. A heterosexual is not a person who had sexual desire for someone of the opposite gender once or a few times: it’s someone who always has sexual desire for people of the opposite gender, and no one else. A right-winger is not a person who once believed that immigrants are scum: it’s someone who holds to the main positions we call “right-wing” and has done so for a while or as a result of strong personal beliefs.

This entry by Independent Radical talks about the political aspect of nounism, especially as related to liberal self-identification. It’s all about nouning people:

Identity politics consists of turning either superficial traits (such as sexual preferences and unhealthy lifestyle choices) or hierarchical social categories (especially race, sex and class) into “identities”, which are then meant to form a basis for political movements…

The term “smokers” is used in a similar way to defend tobacco consumption. Those who create policies aimed at discouraging smoking may be denounced for discriminating against “smokers”. By replacing the verb, “smoking”, with the noun “smoker”, one can obscure the fact that a bad habit is being targeted rather than a set of people. Nobody is inherently a “smoker” (or a “gamer” for that matter, let alone a player of violent games), nor is anyone destined to remain one (however difficult quitting may be). Those who smoke are not in the same position as those born with female genitalia or dark skin. The former have the option of giving up their dangerous habit (which is, after all, the objective of the policies) and escaping any perceived discrimination. The latter do not.

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