The Politics of Definitions

So, the AP has asked its writers not to use the term “homophobe” to describe newsworthy folk opposing gay rights. This is part of the overall rejection of the term “homophobia,” a term that describes, depending on who you ask, the mindset or the condition of these folks.

According to the Deputy Standards Editor there, this choice has to do with accuracy: phobias are mental conditions – clear illnesses – and “homophobia” suggests a kind of pathological irrationality that could more neutrally and accurately be described by the term “anti-gay”.

Whether or not opposition to the existence of and/or extension of rights to gay people is pathological is something that’s up for debate – it certainly seems irrational in the sense that it’s primarily emotional, but there are lots of bad decisions we make that rely on emotion rather than logic, and we don’t call them pathological. And whether or not opposition to gay rights springs primarily from an irrational fear, specifically, is something that we can probably never know.

But the debate spurred by this linguistic retirement actually suggests a wider question: under what circumstances should we refer to groups by their own preferred term, and when is this inappropriate? It would make language meaningless to allow every person to define his or her actions, identities, and political beliefs in the most positively euphemistic terms: we don’t go around referring to serial killers as “retroactive pregnancy termination specialists” or thieves as “reappropriators”.

But at the same time, there’s a good reason why publications refer to descendants of the native peoples of the Americas as “American Indians,” and why we no longer refer to the Roma as “gypsies” – the terminology imposed on groups by outsiders can be extremely harmful and prejudicial, and the obvious answer is to let most groups identify themselves by their own preferred terms.

The first disjunction seems to be between that of actions and identities: people who drive can be fairly called motorists (in their context as automotive operators) and people who walk can be called pedestrians. Of course, we don’t mainly identify ourselves as motorists or pedestrians, and we are free to change our identification merely by stepping out of our vehicles.

On the other hand, I may want to define myself based on some immutable or difficult to adjust characteristic. Letting others define that characteristic in negative terms can be exceptionally cruel: prejudicial terminology that refers to my parentage, skin color, or other characteristic takes the power out of my hands and lets others unfairly judge me before they know me. It also makes one characteristic the primary identifier, something that can also be extremely unfair: I am, for example, diabetic, but it would be strange and unhelpful for people to know me primarily by that fact. Letting members of identity communities define their own terms, then, seems like a far more successful policy than letting outsiders define those groups.

But what about holders of a political philosophy or a belief? This seems to fall somewhere between action and identity: there are lots of people who see themselves as “Democrats,” and very few who see themselves as “tax-and-spend liberals”. Is it bigoted to refer to holders of a political belief by a term they do not choose for themselves? What about those active in the debate – those who act to make political speech?

I’m not sure there’s any hard-and-fast rule. Generally, it seems better to let opposing sides in controversial issues frame themselves in the best possible light: a kind of uneasy peace has been made between the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps in the abortion camp, with neither side having to bear the burden of being “anti-anything”. More confrontational terms like “anti-life” and “anti-choice” have only caught on in partisan circles.

In this case, though, there is a difference (however distasteful the distinction may be) between those who want to deny certain rights to a group and those who oppose the existence of that group. Perhaps, then, “homophobe” is too inaccurate a term to encompass the entire spectrum of anti-gay philosophy. Replacing it with a merely more euphemistic term may not help, though. And hopefully, it won’t be long before we don’t have to refer to this group in publication at all.

31 comments

  1. Really great post. Another subject oft argued is rape and the question as to whether or not the definition should be expanded. The supposed “Men’s Rights Movement” and it’s arguments on this very subject with many feminists creates a lot of drama.

    1. Oh, yeah. I know about the MRM. There’s a perfect example of a “movement” which is really just a counter-movement – it’s meant as a counter to feminism, but it fundamentally misunderstands feminism in the first place. I posted about it earlier, but it’s not even cracking the surface.

  2. I think we sometimes forget that Pro-life and pro choice aren’t opposite poles. At one end we have people who want no one to have an abortion ever (i.e. the situation in Ireland), and at the other end would be people who want everyone to have mandatory abortions (i.e eugenics nuts). Pro choice is the middle compromise position. Those who want abortions can have them, and those who don’t, don’t.

  3. Sorry, that was off topic. On topic, I don’t see why homophobia is inaccurate. There’s no rational reason to be against gay ppl. It’s bigotry plain and simple. I think if I wrote for AP, I’d start using the term ‘anti-gay bigots.’ Might as well call a spade a spade.

    1. There’s an argument to be made there – I just worry what other political groups might think about people like us. What do they get to call me in the interest of being “clear” and “accurate”?

      I don’t think that anti-gay groups can win on ideas. If the language is free of political slants – either way – eventually reason will win out.

      1. I hope it will.

  4. Words ending with “phobe’ are usually intended to portray an individual in a way to make them appear as though they are evil. I have so many phobes after my name it makes me seem totally anti-social and non thinking. What writers try to do is depict a phobian as someone who is to be shunned, one who has no credibility in his speech. Being called a -phobe is almost as terrifying as being labeled a racist as when a person criticizes the President for anything he is branded a racist.
    Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

    1. Good point. Some against gay marriage would say they are supporters of the traditional definition of marriage. Just as the post says “there are lots of people who see themselves as “Democrats,” and very few who see themselves as “tax-and-spend liberals””, there are not many conservatives who see themselves as homophobes. Each side is looking at the issue from a different angle, so it is natural that each will see something the other misses and miss something the other sees. Both sides should act like adults and avoid inflammatory terms such as phobe and bigot.

  5. Interesting and thought provoking post. Though, I’d add that I sometimes doubt whether the terms themselves have any meaning at all. For political and cultural groups that you talk about (anti-gay rights, pro-choice, etc.) it’s not the accuracy of the term to depict the actions of the group itself that matters most, but the rhetorical value of its pathos – the justification one might feel for being “pro-life”. His ability to tell his friends, “I believe in life, damnit!”

    To that end, I think society in times of unity makes an aggregate decision and judgement of various groups. We don’t like serial killers or thieves. So even if they were known as “retroactive pregnancy termination specialists” (lol!) and “reappropriators” respectively, we would feel a malaise towards that term.

    Homophobe or anti-gay, I’m predisposed to judge you for that particular value. Just like among many liberals the nobility of the term “pro-life” has been eroded over time, the same will happen to any term that is such motivated.

    Think about the word “entitlement”. It’s framed so much political debate. It is devious because Americans pay into it, but when the conservatives called it such, they were victors and champions of the American dream, of the “Rugged individualism”. But over time, society itself has judged that to some extent entitlements are necessary, even if requiring reform.

    Sentiments within terms don’t last.

  6. I absolutely love your tagline.

  7. william wallace · · Reply

    Exchange “homophobe” with “stupid” or with an “brainless monkey”.

    One can’t help their genetic structure it’s not a personal choice one
    need make the best of it / genetic pooling brings great variety which
    many support / or their would be no wish or a ongoing practice of it.

    Can you imagine a world where all beloning to Israeli genetic order
    where all lost a world of fantasy of halfbaked religious ideas beliefs.

    There good reason for male / male as female / female relationships.

    I can’t give explanation of this as people in main not ready for such
    depth of understanding /many would abuse such understanding as
    they look on the world only from their mind (not heart) one need be
    balanced in understanding in understanding via heart & brain, with
    a clarity coming /via the power of creation / via power of the creator.

    How does one attain clarity / understanding of universe as creator ?.

    It’s actually very simple to understand the human journey / such be
    it’s problem it’s simplicity / people having become as made life very
    complicated in viewing from a mind (minus heart) that they but see
    only part of the picture / where be a need seeing the whole picture.
    thus one in a state of knowing not believing guessing / but knowing.

    Throughout the history of humanity there being Spiritual Teachers
    ( NOT RELIGIOUS ) but “Spiritual Teachers” /among such Spiritual
    Teachers be the “Teacher of Teachers” the “Teacher of Teachers”
    guides & aids all via meditation whom are ready for their final stage
    of learning / opening the gateway to their knowing true spiritual self.

    Present time the “Teacher of Teachers” is Prem Rawat. Prem has
    dedicated his life to aid all whom reach such an stage meditation is
    requiried for their future spiritual development / that via meditation
    one then fully understand creation / understanding the purpose of
    the human journey. Via meditation turning the senses inward in an
    unfolding of knowing true spiritual self. Not of ideas beliefs not of a
    heaven thats somewhere beyond the clouds but in one having very
    practical spiritual experience granting clarity in their understanding.

    On PC search put ( words of peace) or put ( words of peace global)
    on site a selection of videos which Prem explains need of meditation
    as an inviation to all whom reached required stage where meditation
    but needed in their life for their future ongoing spiritual development.

  8. Regardless of modern social conditioning (revamping definitions to achieve desired ends) I base my judgements on a comparison between my personal values and what I perceive of the values of others.
    I’m also very much ‘live and let live’ — unless someone invades my space. I’m not a ‘homophobe’, what folk get up to in their own space matters not a whit. But in my space I don’t like people flaunting their ‘values’ beyond the bounds of good manners and especially I don’t like people telling me I have to like them for it.
    The hard-and-fast rule you want is simply this: Live and let live … and don’t damned well intrude.

  9. Although I find the article interesting, I don’t catch up why homophobia should be banned or not. Despite the correction of the term itself, there’re no academy nor institution able to prohibit the usage of a word effectively. While the time goes on, the society just use the word and that word begins to convey a concrete meaning. Rules are changed after all, since no language is set in stone.

    1. Absolutely – if people want to keep using the term “homophobe,” the word will live, AP or no AP. I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen a newspaper writer let a sentence like “The homophobes gathered on the steps of Capitol Hill” slip into print, anyway.

  10. william wallace · · Reply

    One need take account western nations are coming through the mists of
    many centuries of christian brainwashing western nations had no wish or
    want of christianity such was forced on them by the means of appalling
    brutality followed by centuries of burning at the stake unto those daring
    defy Church Authority. For centuries the ability to read write but witheld
    Church Authority feared with education then the people would challenge
    the power of Church Authority as would challenge christian brainwashing.

    How did the christian Church become so powerful ?. T’was simple formula
    the Church supported the divine right of Kings Queens to rule a nation in
    return Royalty granting Church Authority land as money which TAX FREE.

    As power corrupts it came to the people’s that the power of Royalty as of
    Church Authority needed as had to be removed / if to gain their freedom.

    Many of the Royal Famlies were removed / some remained as in having to
    learn they needed adapt if to survive (some did) others lost their heads….
    Church Authority over centuries lost much of its power / thus millions being
    freed from religious brainwashing / abled to read write as the ability having
    independent thought / in seeing christianity for what it is one gigantic fraud.

    What replaced Church Authority was a parliament / people choosen by the
    people to best represent the people (which did bring change for the good)
    however as having power corrupted Church Authority & Royalty it in having
    done similar to politicians. Todays western politicians in main USA as an UK
    are totally corrupted / politicians are bought as sold unto the highest bidder
    by those with the wealth to do so /thus the politicians but serve their wealthy
    masters/ people treated today by politicians as they were once so ill treated
    by Church Authority as Royalty / the people having gradually been stripped
    of all rights. Once t’was the politicians whom were the servants of the people
    through corruption such having been reversed / it being now that the people
    are the servants of the politicians / politicians whom now treat the people as
    sheep to be fleeced where chilrdren treated as lamb for slaughter / but killed
    or killing hundreds of thousands of others in totally pointless wars & conflicts.

  11. I think the “fiscal cliff” is another word like this. Less personal. But still, wouldnʻt the world just be a saner place if we called it “budget deadline?”

    1. william wallace · · Reply

      carolburbank / You can’t call it “budget deadline” because it has meaning
      and calls for action to serious problems where “fiscal cliff” has no meaning
      such why it’s called “fiscal cliff” / and not your far wiser “budget deadline”..

      The reality is nations will let a USA continue to print $billions more as flood
      the nation with $billions in funds no nations govts as it’s people wish see a
      world banking collapse ( such but return humanity back unto the stone age
      as with the many banking frauds / bankers in having people caught betwiixt
      Satan & the Devil / they understand govt powerles / the bankers but simply
      threaten bring a world banking collapse / govt then no choice but submit to
      wealthy bankers. “Fiscal Cliff” day t’will Come and t’will Go nought changing.

  12. I am not happy with words being banned. Each word is a time capsule and often contains many meanings through its evolution to its current use. And will slowly modify in the future. I grew up using the word gay to express a mood, or talked about the poofy sleeves on my dress, but those words are not in my vocabulary these days. Hopefully some day they’ll be back, refreshed.

    1. I don’t think this is a ban in the usual sense – it may very well be a real stab at accuracy, like the standards editor claims.

      On the other hand, your point about the evolution of words is well taken. If you want a shock, try looking up the history of the now-innocuous “scumbag”.

  13. “So, the AP has asked its writers not to use the term “homophobe” to describe newsworthy folk opposing gay rights.” Newsworthy folk opposing gay rights. When your personal beliefs regarding anothers’ lifestyle become newsworthy, I don’t think the suffix “-phobe” is unreasonable.

    1. Not unreasonable. But it does make it sound like this opposition is pathologized – and I just finished watching a movie about a gay man trying to “treat” his sexuality. It may very well be that the need to regulate the lives of those around you is more of a pathology than a non-normative object of love, but damn if both of those haven’t been part of humanity since the very beginning.
      As one commenter above mentioned, it probably won’t be long before all of the connotations currently attached to “homophobe” come to be attached to “anti-gay,” anyway.

  14. The naming of names is not a trivial thing. Word choice is rarely neutral, especially where there are a range of “near-synonymous” terms. It’s probably better to call a group by it’s own preferred name when possible, but when group consensus isn’t clear a word should be selected that doesn’t carry negative connotations. This is not political correctnes, it is manners.

    1. It’s one of the great ironies of our time that “political correctness” has become such a politically loaded term.
      But yes: nothing is ever “just semantics” – and it’s long been my position that people who invoke “political correctness” as a matter of course are trying only to claim cover for their own rudeness while simultaneously shifting the burden of justification back to the person who called them out as rude.

  15. akong1994 · · Reply

    Very interesting post. Ironic how people perceive things based on definition, when definitions are predefined. So in essence, we see what some people want us to see. Maybe the issue with “political correctness” also has to deal with how politicians who come up with these terms are trying to change how we view things.

  16. william wallace · · Reply

    BARACK / has tried to justify “political correctness” with the word
    “lawful”. A USA govt can now simply murder any individual it now
    regards as a threat to their rule (though term they use) as cover
    be that of (any individual they believing be a threat to the nation).

    Thus acts of injustice against the people now justified by lawyers
    as the courts where the crime be addressed as an “lawful’ action
    “lawful” murder “lawful” rape “lawful” torture “lawful” imprisonment.

    One could put the word “lawful” before the word “homophobe” this
    then then according to USA law make it acceptable to the courts &
    public that (“lawful” homophobia) be a right / not a criminal offence.

  17. [...] This blog post is the basis of mine, so go read it before you start this one. [...]

  18. william wallace · · Reply

    There t’was a time before christianity when one’s attitude
    was far more open where the approach of understanding
    from one’s heart not originating of christian brainwashing.

    In such forcing of christianity on western nations was the
    cruelest of crimes /more so the horror to western female
    with christianty came its halfbaked religious ideas beliefs
    that through sin of woman in her lusting of the flesh / she
    tempted man into committing sexual sin / thus God whom
    was very anti sin had them evicted from heaven to planet
    earth / thus woman whom offending God & Man shall go
    through great suffering / after death of her human frame
    iher soul / spirit then taken unto a place called Hell where
    it cast into an fire thus her destiny being eternal suffering.

    Why did leaders the western nations support christianity ?.

    They saw by the example of Jewish leaders their having
    the one God rather than the many put great power and
    wealth in the hands of a few /whom then ruled the many
    thus all did jump on an one God bandwaggon. An slight
    but important western change / at centre of the western
    faith belief /not God but their claimed son of God Jesus
    they then accused the jews of killing their “Son of God”
    thus Jewish people were no longer God’s choosen the
    title “God’s Choosen” now reverted to western nations.

    However the big error was in their taking the beliefs
    as ideas of jewish scripture / however at such time it
    be their concentration was on gaining power / not of
    future results of halfbaked religious belief and ideas
    being adopted in their social structure as it’s results.

    Muslims made the same SAD blunder. In Muhammad
    the Prophet granted spiritual guidance as knowledge
    there was then never any need for them to refer unto
    christianity in any way form / never the need to adopt
    or adapting their teaching to include as in supporting
    halfbaked religious Jewish scripture & christian belief
    yet they did from foolish ill guided respect as stupidity.

    In having made such an mistake there t’was no going
    back or a rewriting of history thus it was stupidity that
    having given birth unto todays problems war conflicts.

    as a punisment originated from / the bible / first version.

  19. The AP editors are dead on right. For years I’ve detested that term “homophobe” for its obvious inaccuracy — and I’m pro gay rights. “Homophobe” presumes that people on a political side are afraid, without any justification. Anti-gay is more correct, but there could be a better description.

    “And whether or not opposition to gay rights springs primarily from an irrational fear, specifically, is something that we can probably never know.”

    And is irrelevant to the rights question. It doesn’t matter how they feel about it, the political position on legislative matters is what this is referring to.

    I would say religious fundamentalism is a far greater factor than fear. It was sort-of written down in a book somewhere.

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