ZAMA – What’s in a word?
It’s inadvisable to start a speech or essay with a dictionary definition. Your time can often be better spent setting up the issue that you’re talking about, and usually what you’re defining is actually common knowledge anyway. However, I feel like I can get away with this for two reasons. First, “Zama” is not a word with which many of you will be familiar, so defining it is necessary. Second, I haven’t actually started this piece with a dictionary definition, but instead I’ve started with a paragraph-long disclaimer about how I’m not starting with a dictionary definition. I feel like that’s better somehow.
Adjective – Yiddish
1. Standing out, in equal parts sincere and obnoxious.
2. Gaudy or Ostentatious, but in an endearing way.
Zama (Zah-muh, Yiddish) was one of those words that was a constant fixture of my household. I remember wearing bright, obnoxious button-down shirts in a simultaneously silent-yet-loud protest against my high school’s dress code. Those shirts, the literal highlight of which included a puke green and bright yellow plaid shirt, were called Zama.
When someone in an old-fashioned suburb paints their garage door a bright cyan, that’s Zama. By contrast, painting a chic modern home cyan is not Zama on its own.
The word was most often used to describe colour combinations, but it can also be used on personalities. Eccentric celebrities and larger than life coworkers are Zama.
The word was never defined to me, but just as we learn most words in our youth, through context it became very clear what was and wasn’t Zama.
I feel like I’m a little bit Zama myself. Given how much I talk, I have to hope that I’m Zama and not just loud and annoying. But I’m not naming this blog Zama because I think that I personally embody Zama. I’m using this name because I feel like the word Zama represents a lot of what my blog is going to talk about. To show why, I first need to explain the topics themselves.
ZAMA AND PHILOSOPHY
It’s pretty fun to make fun of Philosophers. It’s fun to make fun of their almost non-existent job prospects, how most Philosophy students just wait for their turn to play devil’s advocate in tutorial rooms, and how the field as a whole just consists of staring at your hand and asking, “whoa, but, like, what is a hand?”
I make fun of this last one a lot. Asking what things ‘are’ is a staple of Philosophy, especially bad Philosophy. When teaching tutorials, I’ll give a detailed account of some theory, only to have a student ask for a definition of some miscellaneous term that wasn’t essential to the point. “What is a hand” is an intriguing question for many Philosophers, but it’s usually, in my opinion, the least interesting thing one can be asking.
While asking for a definition is often a bad question, the earliest roots of the Western Philosophical tradition start here. Socrates asks his buddies what they think ‘Justice’ is. They each list actions that they think represent Justice, but can’t define Justice itself. Plato draws attention to the fact that although we think we understand Justice, it’s possible that we’ve simply defined it in a way that lets us justify whatever actions we like.
Fun fact: The name ‘Plato’ was probably a nickname meaning ‘broad’. Today we would have probably just named him ‘THICC’
When Philosophy is bad, it’s asking useless questions that only serve to make you feel like you’ve broken into the Philosophy-Mainframe like a hacker in an 80s movie.
When Philosophy is good, it can ask us to investigate whether our societal structures are doing a good job. Questions that investigate our assumptions are important, and way more interesting than simply asking for a definition of every word in order to win Philosophy Points™ in tutorial.
The budding Philosopher that you are, you might ask, “How is Zama relevant to this?” I’ll explain soon. But first I need to explain…
ZAMA AND COMEDY
When you start learning improv comedy, you’re told a number of rules that will create good scenes. A bad improv teacher will present these rules as iron-clad laws that must be obeyed for any modicum of improv success to be achieved.
When I started doing improv, I tried to learn the rules and follow them to the best of my ability. I focused really hard on being careful to avoid making ‘mistakes’, and my scenes were more stilted as a result. When I started teaching improv, the extent of the criticism I could offer was “so-and-so broke X rule of improv.”
Going back to Plato, if someone asks, “why was that scene bad” and you answer “because you broke this rule”, you haven’t answered the question, only provided an example. Why did breaking that rule make the scene bad?
A rule of improv is that everyone should be on the same page. To be on the same page as me regarding Zama, I need to first explain…
ZAMA AND GAMING
Before I learned the rules of improv in university, I spent my time obsessing over games. In elementary school I was the first kid who knew how to play Yu-Gi-Oh with the real rules instead of the ones from the TV show. My 12-year old self loved learning the tiniest details of how Dungeons and & Dragons was meant to be played. Learning how different rules interacted with each other was a rite of passage in nerd circles. The game became about learning how to abuse the rules of the system to your advantage, rather than creating a story or facilitating fun.
Any sensible person would abandon the minute details of how much your character’s food rations weighed or how often one of their bowstrings should break. Did I allow my players to ignore the rules? No, because rules are rules. If you don’t follow these structures, you’re playing the game wrong. As with the rules of improv, I failed to recognize that game rules were supposed to serve a purpose.
Everyone hates only learning a crucial rule of a game at the very end. Games work best when everyone at the table has the same understanding. To that end, I think it’s about time to explain Zama. But first…
ZAMA AND JUSTICE
Not all rules are good. A common defence of discriminatory systems or behaviour is that it’s legal. People always conflate good with permissible. When someone says that you ought not to say something, people immediately turn to legal defences to explain why they should be allowed to say something rather than explain why that thing was worth saying. If the best defence of your position is that it shouldn’t be literally against the law to spread it, chances are you don’t actually have a defensible position.
The history of humankind has been discovering that more people should have rights. Changing the system comes with the recognition that you have been complicit in injustice, and these changes are often fought against by those who benefit from their continuation. It can be tough to abandon or recognize the faults within our current social constructs. Doing so often feels like we are being forced to personally admit error for the existence of something that is by definition larger than ourselves. We have to remember that the goal of justice isn’t to make people feel bad, but to protect people who need to be protected.
Meeting the demands of justice is the process of seeing how the structures we’ve built have failed to represent a necessary truth, and that they have caused those who exist on the margins and in liminal spaces of our definitions to suffer. Recognizing that our rules and definitions aren’t serving their purposes is important, and part of doing so is first recognizing that our rules and definitions are ultimately social constructs to begin with.
So far all I’ve done is talk about rules and definitions. If someone makes a promise, the Just thing to do would be to keep it. On that note, here I go fulfilling my promise. Here is why Zama is relevant to me:
ZAMA AND ME
For those of you not in the know, I’m Jewish. Specifically, I’m Ashkenazi, which is a subset of Eastern European Jews. These Jews often speak Yiddish, a weird hybrid language of German and Hebrew. I don’t personally speak Yiddish, but Yiddish words are really fun to say, and often capture how you feel better than English can.
Saying that you’re ‘sweating’ is gross. But saying that your ‘schvitzing’ (Shvits-ing, Yiddish) is much better. When something is dysfunctional, there’s nothing more satisfying than getting to say the word ‘fakakta’ (Fuh-kuk-tuh, Yiddish). If someone is acting daring, we often have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to what word to use. We can say they have ‘moxie’ (Mock-see, English), ‘gumption’ (Gump-shun, Scottish), or ‘cajones’ (Kuh-hoe-nays, Spanish), but I default to using the gloriously Yiddish ‘chutzpah’ (Phleghm-utz-puh, Yiddish). My High school had a sizeable Jewish population, so fun Yiddish words like these often made their way into conversation. When I was describing the aforementioned abomination of a shirt to my peers, Zama was the clear word of choice.
I was met with blank stares.
It was then that I discovered that Zama was not a real Yiddish word. Or a real word at all. It was just one of those things that my mom said when describing things. But whereas I could usually tell when some weird term was just something our family said, such as describing something weird as ‘Wonkadoolie’ (wahn-kuh-doo-lee, fictional), Zama sounded like a plausible Yiddish word. It was never presented to me as such, but I just assumed that it belonged in the hallowed ranks of the Yiddish semi-mainstream, along with ‘tookus’, ‘schmuck’, and ‘schlep’ in the Pantheon of words that people think New Yorkers invented. Zama had no meaning other than what I gave to it. Nobody thought it was a real word but me.
I feel that my history with the word Zama mirrors my journey through all of these different fields. Recognizing the socially-constructed nature of things has been essential in each of them.
In Philosophy I learned to recognize when things were social constructs, and question whether these constructs were useful. It’s important to see that what is obvious to you, like your concept of Justice or definition of Zama, is actually artificial.
If I focused entirely on following the strictest rules of language, just as I focused on following the strictest rules of Improv or the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, then I wouldn’t be able to use the word Zama. My world would be more ‘correct’ by these standards. However, following these standards will never be as fun or interesting as changing or disregarding them.
Before I had to try to describe Zama to other people, I failed to recognize that my experiences were not universal. Failing to regard your own experiences as subjective lies at the heart of a lot of issues within Social Justice. We import our own experiences into our definitions of the world, and seldom leave room for others’ experiences to help refine those definitions.
For me, the word Zama is an incredibly useful construct. It’s a positive word. It can capture things better than words like ‘loud’, ‘gaudy’, or ‘ostentatious’. Humans always try to break things down into rules, hierarchies, and terminology that can never describe what is really going on or how things ought to be. At best this approach can be inaccurate or misleading, at worst this approach can be harmful to those who don’t fit these constructs. As I’ve learned, and am still learning throughout these different fields, the world is far too Zama (Zah-muh, fictional) for simple definitions to suffice.