se•mi•ot•ics, noun, the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.
Ordinarily I would not be much interested in the race for San Jose (CA) City Council. But Chris Escher of OpportunityNow, a San Jose-based website for entrepreneurs, sent me some campaign flyers and public reactions to them and asked for my reaction
I took the flyers at face value. The captions above the pictures of three White women and two “people of color” were clearly leveraging, on the one side, political endorsement-by-label (“leading moderate women officeholders” – the first two adjectives are open to debate, but all four are presented as equally valid); and, on the other, attack-by-association and -position (supports someone who wants to defund police).
But not everyone is so literal. Some reactions branded the depiction of people, in particular the distribution of Black men and White women, to be “racist.” One commentator called it a “hit piece.”
Once again, we are in the nebulous area between language production and perception, both of which originate in the brain and are therefore largely unknowable. All we have to work with is the stream of speech sounds.
Politicization and weaponization of language
What we do know is that our society has, to use the current buzzwords, politicized and weaponized language as never before. People invest words with great power and use them to attack and divide.
Certainly racist and its derivatives are daily examples. And once again, we are in the realm of manufactured insult. Recently, we learned that “looting” can be perceived to have racist overtones. For more, see the politically-correct exegesis of “looting” at https://www.language-expert.net/how-the-virus-of-political-correctness-spreads-none-dare-call-it-looting/.”.
Let’s be clear: the word racism has been generalized, from actual, real-world racism (the sincere belief that one race, however sloppily defined, is superior to another, leading to [action is essential, not just thoughts] the deprivation of civil rights and liberties, and even the lives, of the hated group)…to include perceived racism (you are just as bad as the people who practiced the real thing).
Racism as a thought-crime
Racism has been reduced to a thought-crime. It’s an argument closer. Once you’re identified as a member of the hated group, even by accusation, you have no rights. Also: If one is inclined to find racism everywhere, one will find it everywhere.
The depicted grouping of sexes and races is outside language itself, in the world of signal-meaning called “semiotics.”
As with language, symbols can be specific (a brand or trademark) or vague, even subjective. That’s what’s happening here: insult is manufactured from innocuous symbols.
But as one local commentator wrote, “I see friendships and camaraderie, not race.”
Words should not be weapons
As a linguist and lover of social harmony, I call upon everybody to chill out and stop calling anything “racist” that is not the real thing, as defined above. We should not be using words as weapons