Thursday, December 22, 2011

How interest in prejudices rise and fall in fashion

Below is a Google Ngram Viewer graph showing the relative popularity of the words racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia since 1930.
We see that there have been successive waves of interest in forms of bigotry or prejudice. First, racism, which rises unsurprisingly during the late 1930s after Adolf Hitler began to put his explicit racist ideology into practice. A zoomed-in graph shows a rapid increase in mentions of racism over this period:
Mentions of racism peaked in the early 1970s, presumably following the great civil rights anti-racism movements of the 60s, and then rose again during the late 1980s and 1990s. It is on its way down now. Why? Perhaps there is a sense that the worst racism issues have been solved in English-speaking countries already. Or it may just be out of fashion as people have wearied of the angry protests of the past.

The next wave of interest is sexism. The first chart makes it look like nobody was writing about sexism before the 1960s at all. In reality there were periodic bursts of interest in sexism throughout the early 20th century:
But mentions really took off around 1966, peaking, like racism, in the 1990s. Remember that Ngram looks at mentions as a percentage of all words, so the fall after the 1990s could be due to rising interest in some other topics, rather than a real fall of interest in sexism or racism. This is a difficulty for interpretation.

The third form of prejudice is homophobia, which lags sexism by a few years, beginning to increase in mentions in the 1970s, peaking around 1996. In 2008 homophobia made up around the same proportion of all words published in Google's massive book database as it made in 1990.
Finally Islamophobia. It seems to score no mentions at all in the first graph. But if we zoom in a little further we see a consistent rise in the mid-1990s.
As late as 2008 Islamophobia was still rising. Will it peak soon like the others? No idea.

What does all of this mean? Perhaps these waves of interest indicate real public awareness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Muslimism. Perhaps the eventual decline in mentions indicates a public sense that the discrimination has begun to decline and society is now past its problem. Islamophobia, then, continues to rise because anti-Muslim sentiments may not have been challenged or settled enough for the public to feel the issue is over.

Or it might mean none of that, interpretations are tricky here. Any thoughts?


  1. :O Is Anti-Muslimism a real word? (Sadly, this is not a profound thought to do justice to your thought-provoking piece, but a random question).

  2. Cheers Sujji, well I know "Islamophobia" is the more common word, but it is problematic. For starters, it's probably not a phobia, which I discuss here:

    Second, Islam as a religion could be seen as an ideology, and aversion to an ideology doesn't seem as worrying as hatred of a PEOPLE - the Muslims. For example, I don't really care if someone hates Christianity, but if they hate and seek to harm Christians then it's a problem. Some people have argued that the word "Islamophobia" can be too easily used to deflect criticisms of Islam, or various versions/interpretations of Islam. This criticism can be a healthy thing.

    Instead I read Professor Fred Halliday arguing that "anti-Muslimism" is a more sensible phrase, even if it is not as cool-sounding! So that's the one I go for, using it to mean a hatred of Muslims, not a hatred necessarily of Islam.


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