About a year and a half ago, I wrote this:
Recent discussion … has reminded me, too, that this doesn’t apply solely to negative descriptions like racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. If it were more normal to use “feminist” (for example) as an adjective, a mostly fruitless debate over whether Barack Obama is “a feminist,” which tends toward devolving into people claiming their set of views is what defines “a feminist” and anyone who doesn’t quite match up is “not a feminist,” we could be discussing how feminist he is[.] These things are matters of degree.
In the time since then I’ve continued to think about the issue, and I suspect that I missed an important point in my original post — even though, with the Neal Stephenson and Jay Smooth citations, it was staring me in the face. It’s still important to think about “isms” in terms of degree rather than as simplistic, binary oppositions. But another, probably equally important way to see it is that nouns tends to be about identity, while adjectives are more easily applicable to action.
The original “Nouning Considered Harmful” post was, in part, inspired by debate over whether Barack Obama was or was not “a feminist.” Now, some sixteen months later, a similar debate is occurring over Sarah Palin’s description of herself as “a feminist,” and the larger attempt by conservative women to “claim” (or “reclaim”) the term “feminist” to describe their generally anti-choice, anti-marriage-equality, pro-capitalist, pro-traditional-patriarchal-family policy positions.
(My responses to this are mainly 1) to note that attempting to co-opt progressive language for anti-progressive policies, or to smear progressive policies with anti-progressive labels, is standard right-wing newspeak procedure; and 2) to quote this excellent Bitch, PhD post: “My point is that it irritates the hell out of me when I see an argument about feminism in which neither side seems to actually remember that feminism isn’t about what women or men ‘choose’ to do: it’s about the way society is structured.” (emphasis mine) That is, to claim your policy positions are feminist, when you’re actually advocating against structural changes in society that would improve the socioeconomic status of women as a class, is an absurdity.)
But the question of whether a specific person “is a feminist” or not is the wrong question, I think; it’s either a meaningless question, or it’s a meaningful question asked in a counterproductive way. As I understand it, it’s a basic tenet of anti-oppression thought that people get to define their own identities. And this can be kind of tricky, it turns out, and lead to some pretty fraught discussions of appropriation and self-definition, when someone like Sarah Palin calls herself “a feminist.” Because to claim to be, or not to be, or that someone else is, or is not, “a [noun]” is a claim about identity. People really, really don’t like to be told their identity is something different from what they themselves say it is, and people who subscribe to progressive views tend to be really uncomfortable with the idea of telling someone else “no, your identity is X, no matter how much you say it’s Y.” Identity is personal and internal, it resides in the mind — and no one but me knows my mind, so how can anyone else contradict my claims about my own identity?
So this is the crux of the nouning issue, then: if I say “you are a racist” or “you are a feminist” I’m making a claim about your identity, and in some sense that’s just not a claim I’ve got the right to make. If I say “I’m not a racist” or “I’m a feminist” I’m making a claim about my identity, which I’ve got every right to do, but the validity of which no one but me has any way to evaluate.
If, on the other hand, I say “the policies you support would tend to keep the political, social and/or economic status of women as a class lower than that of men as a class,” or (equivalently) “the policies you support are un- or anti-feminist,” I’m making a claim that can actually be evaluated, because it’s a claim about actions and effects in the world, not thoughts within someone’s brain.
Some further reading, from which you’ll be able to click through to all sorts of blog posts about whether Sarah Palin is a feminist, should you be so inclined: Pilgrim Soul, Kate Harding.