Regardless of its seemingly harmless origination, the prolonged existence of the word “anti-Semitism” is responsible for the incorrect assumptions and institutional oppression of non-Jewish Semites, a minority group in Western countries where the term is used. In doing so, the word abuses its power of implied legitimacy, and therefore, serves as a stain on the sanctity of politically correct language.
“Anti-Semitism”, a term first coined in 1878 by German nationalist Wilhelm Marr to label the opposition party to Jewish nationalism, became widely used during the 1930s, and is still in common use today. The word is commonly defined as a hostility to or prejudice against Jewish peoples. Broken into its roots, the word is deconstructed into “anti” and “Semitic”, meaning “against Semitic peoples”. Semitic peoples, or simply “Semites”, are peoples of ancient Middle-Eastern origin who inhabit the Levant, the Arab Gulf, and other nearby regions. It isn’t explicitly clear why Marr constructed the word “anti-Semitic” to mean anti-Jew—why pick a term that is linguistically inaccurate? The most likely explanation is that the word “Semitic” was chosen to describe the Jews since they were the dominating Semitic group in Europe at the time.
Now, in order to understand the implications of the term’s use, it is important to establish a contextual framework in which the word “anti-Semitic” is used—who uses it and how? Interestingly enough, the word “anti-Semitic” is largely accepted in virtually every single context in which it is used. Rarely are there any direct misgivings with the usage of the word, despite the fact that the definition of the word fails to match its compensation. For the most part, it is just thought of as the correct word for those who foster an anti-Jewish sentiment.
First, the word is inaccurate, and this inaccuracy breeds incorrect understandings about the nature of Semites. As explained by the Britannica Encyclopedia, the word “implies a discrimination against all Semites. Arabs and other peoples are also Semites, and yet they are not the targets of anti-Semitism as it is usually understood.” Governments that recognize the word “anti-Semitic” as the politically correct definition of the concept of hostility or discrimination to Jewish peoples are effectively marginalizing and discrediting the legitimacy of an entire population of non-Jewish Semitic peoples. Words have immense power. Establishing “anti-Semitism” to be politically correct legitimizes the usage and accuracy to the domestic populations. Despite being factually incorrect, any attempts to correct the word on the ground of its inaccuracy in language would be considered “officially” wrong in accordance with political correctness. The argument posed in the usage of this word is that Jews are Semites and Semites are Jews, regardless of the true correctness.
Second, through the use of this word, non-Jewish Semites are both marginalized and oppressed. As mentioned earlier, Jews represent a small percentage of Semites, yet own political power over the word Semite in much of the Western world. As a consequence, the usage of the word “anti-Semitic” is inflammatory—it is a subliminal representation of institutional domination over non-Jewish Semitic people. Non-Jewish Semitic people cannot describe oppression they face as “anti-Semitic”. No, they must resort to the more politically correct words of: “anti-Arabic” or “anti-Middle-Eastern”. Removing the ability for various groups to correctly and linguistically represent themselves with a label serves to mislabel and misidentify a population. This mislabeling, while perhaps unintentional, is a form of linguistic oppression.
In essence, linguistic oppression can be colloquially called “abuse by words”. And much like with people, “abuse by words” can be conducted either overtly or covertly. Overt linguistic oppression takes shape in racial slurs, insults and the like—essentially directly offensive language—while covert linguistic oppression is much more subliminal. The institution of gender-neutral pronouns was the solution to a form of covert linguistic oppression, and serves as a good example as to the impact that covert linguistic oppression possesses.
As explained in a response to Sweden’s introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun into its national encyclopedia, this introduction is a “step in broadening the concept of gender and giving institutional validation to those for whom gender is more complicated than the stiff old male/female dichotomy.” In this case, the construction and implementation of this pronoun served as a form of institutional validation—in essence, a political recognition of the legitimacy of various claims and complexities. By adding the gender-neutral pronoun to its encyclopedia, Sweden is effectively protecting and establishing the legitimacy of a word that represents a marginalized group—it’s an olive branch offered through language control. While gender-neutral pronouns are making substantial headway in politically correct language, these linguistic advances are not seen with the word “anti-Semitism”, a word with similar impacts to those of gendered pronouns.
In perpetuating inaccurate and marginalizing language, one must wonder if there is a sinister purpose for its continued usage in such a politically controversial climate. At some level, we must ask, why hasn’t there been any push to change a word that is so toxic and isolating? In our charge to protect minorities from oppression of all forms, perhaps we should consider that some of the best candidates are words that most obviously hide under our nose.
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