‘Homophobia’ No Longer Exists
… in the Associated Press Stylebook, anyway. An AP official explains:
“Homophobia especially — it’s just off the mark. It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don’t have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such, if we had reason to believe that was the case.”
Exactly right. There has to be a more accurate word or expression to describe anti-gay animus. “Homophobia” carries within it certain assumptions that may or may not be true. I know people who hold animosity towards gay people, but who aren’t afraid of them. I know people who for whatever reason morally disapprove of homosexuality, but who are friends with gay people, and who aren’t the least bit afraid of them. To call either of these people “homophobic” is to misunderstand and misstate what they really believe.
Similarly with “Islamophobia.” Depending on who you are and where you are — say, an Orthodox Jew in a Paris suburb — fear of Muslims may not be a psychiatric disorder, but a rational response to the world in which you live.
To label these things as phobias is to psychologize what may be a rational moral stance, given the premises. Is an Orthodox Jew or Muslim “porkophobic” because their religion forbids consuming pork? Similarly, is an Orthodox Jew, Muslim, or traditional Christian necessarily afraid of homosexuals, or otherwise suffering from a mental disorder, because their religion forbids gay sex? To come think of someone who objects for whatever reason to homosexuality, to Islam, and so forth, as “phobic” is to see them not as people to be taken seriously, persuaded, or at least tolerated, but rather as people to be cured, or at least dismissed as crazy. “Homophobia” and “Islamophobia,” as the AP seems to understand, are inherently loaded terms and concepts.
I don’t like the word myself. There’s a smugness to it that doesn’t sit well with me. And it also implies that a religious or moral position against homosexuality is inherently irrational. It may be highly rational in the context of wanting to maintain a social hierarchy, or a coherent theocracy. I also think that a lot of anti-gay feeling is fear-driven, but it is also contempt-driven. Why not replace homophobia with fear and hatred of gay people. Orwell would approve, I suspect. Use shorter words when possible; avoid Latinate constructions; keep language real. So I guess I have no real problem with the AP’s decision as long as it does not lead to ignoring stories of anti-gay fear and loathing that need to be told.
But that is not quite accurate either. Let’s say you are a gay man who has a strongly negative opinion of the Catholic Church, because of its teachings on sexuality and influence over society. Is it really the case that your views come from either fear, hatred, or both — and from those two things alone? Or is it possible that your animosity towards the Catholic Church has a rational basis? How is a reporter for the AP supposed to know why you have such strong feelings against the Catholic Church? Isn’t the most neutral term “anti-Catholic”?
Even that isn’t as precise as one would like, because it’s possible that one could be like Andrew Sullivan himself: a gay man who identifies as Catholic but who strongly rejects the Catholic hierarchy and Catholic teaching (I don’t know how one pulls that off, but this is what he says he believes, and it’s not up to the reporter to try to parse the particulars). Same with “anti-gay” or “anti-Islamic.” If you describe someone with strong negative feelings about Islamists as “anti-Islamic,” how do you know that person doesn’t approve of liberal Muslims and Sufi Muslims, and that her animus towards Muslims is actually only toward the more pious and hardline Muslims?
Language is imprecise. The AP has taken a step towards precision with this move. Good on them.