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We Can And Should Change The Definition Of Words
How we use a word determines the definition.
Political and social justice movements have changed the definition of words.
Merriam-Webster dictionary changed the definition of “racism” to include the concept of systemic racism.1
Merriam-Webster changed the definition of female to include anyone “having a gender identity that is the opposite of male.”2
When discussing the concept of systemic pedophilia, one of the most common objections I’ve heard is that the current definition of pedophilia is not systemic and based on attraction to children rather than harm of children. These objections fail to acknowledge that the definition of the word pedophilia could be changed with political will and repetition of the concept.
In Children’s Justice, I define systemic pedophilia as “the beliefs, culture, practices, language, institutions, and other social systems that allow children to be harmed.”5 The concept of systemic pedophilia draws from the structure of the concept of systemic racism. At one point, a major objection to the concept of systemic racism was “that’s not the definition of racism.” Well, now it is. The same objection could be overcome the same way on the issue of systemic pedophilia.
Definitions change. As Merriam-Webster notes in an article on changing the definition of the word racism:
Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used ... and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word.6
In other words, if people repeatedly use a word a certain way, that is the definition of the word, and the dictionary will be updated to reflect the common usage of that word.
People repeatedly used the word “racism” to refer to systems that produce inequality between racial groups, rather than just individual prejudice. Now, that is the definition. If people repeatedly used the word “pedophile” to refer to someone who harms children, rather than someone who is attracted to children, then that would be the definition.
This change would be much smaller than the changes made to the words “racism,” “female,” or “vaccine.” Is the word “pedophilia” less subject to change than the word “female?” If these words can be changed, so can “pedophilia.”
In Children’s Justice, I argue that this definition can and should change because the current definition centers adult perpetrators, rather than the child. It gives adults the ability to say that they are “not a pedophile” even when they are actively sexually abusing children merely because they do not feel attraction during the act.
As I write in an article titled Just Because They're "Not Attracted To Children" Doesn't Mean They Aren't Pedophiles:
It is completely irrelevant what feelings adults experience while harming a child. What makes pedophilia wrong is not what adults who do it feel or don’t feel. What makes it wrong is that it harms children.
When adults say “but I’m not attracted to children” even as they are touching children, forcibly penetrating their genitals, or participating in systems that cause that to happen, they center the issue of the sexual abuse of children on themselves, defining pedophilia by their sexual desires. This objection itself is a form of systemic pedophilia.7
Critical social justice movements have already noted that reaching for the dictionary definition of a word is often a form of fragility. As Robin DiAngelo, who coined and popularized the term “white fragility,” notes in her book Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm:
Given the simplicity of the dictionary definition in relation to how complex and nuanced racism is, writer Annie Reneau chides, “Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it’s clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It’s a big old red flag, every time.” She goes on to explain, “Whenever someone’s words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word ‘racist’ as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren’t racist.” In other words, white fragility ensues.8
Likewise, objections to using a systemic definition of pedophilia are a form of fragility.9 Those involved in systemic pedophilia do not want their actions exposed. The current definition requires those who want to protect children to mind-read the desires of perpetrators. The systemic definition requires only that we observe their actions.
If changing a definition protects children, it should be changed. The reason many involved in the harm of children fear Children’s Justice is because they know this redefinition is possible. The precedent is there. All you have to do is repeatedly use the systemic definition.
BBC News. “Racism Definition: Merriam-Webster to Make Update after Request.” BBC News, 10 June 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52993306. Accessed 30 July 2022.
Goerdt, Cristina. “Why Merriam-Webster Changed the Definition of Racism.” VOA, 16 June 2020, www.voanews.com/a/student-union_why-merriam-webster-changed-definition-racism/6191215.html. Accessed 30 July 2022.
Wolfsohn, Jack. “Merriam-Webster Changes the Definition of ‘Female.’” National Review, 20 July 2022, www.nationalreview.com/corner/merriam-webster-changes-the-definition-of-female. Accessed 30 July 2022.
“CDC’s Definition of ‘Vaccine’ Has Changed Over Time: ‘Protection’ vs. ‘Immunity.’” CNSNews.Com, www.cnsnews.com/article/national/susan-jones/cdcs-definition-vaccine-has-changed-over-time-protection-vs-immunity. Accessed 30 July 2022.
Lee, Bruce. “‘Vaccine’ Is Merriam-Webster’s Word Of The Year 2021, Here’s How They Updated Their Definition.” Forbes, 21 Apr. 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2021/11/29/vaccine-is-merriam-websters-word-of-the-year-2021/?sh=551f244c5679. Accessed 30 July 2022.
Marotta, Brendon. Children’s Justice. Hegemon Media, 2022.
“The History and Dictionary Meaning of Racism,” Merriam- Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism. Accessed 30 July 2022.
Marotta, Brendon. “Just Because They’re ‘Not Attracted To Children’ Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Pedophiles.” Hegemon Media, 3 Mar. 2022, www.hegemonmedia.com/p/just-because-theyre-not-attracted. Accessed 30 July 2022.
DiAngelo, Robin. Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. Beacon Press, 2021, pp. 43-44.
Marotta, Brendon. “What Is Pedophile Fragility?” Hegemon Media, 16 Feb. 2022, www.hegemonmedia.com/p/what-is-pedophile-fragility. Accessed 30 July 2022.