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.