Well, now you done it, AP.
The august Associated Press today banned the word “homophobia,” along with the word “Islamophobia,” which I would have argued is much less a “real” word than the term “homophobia,” the latter having been around since the 1960s. Then I checked, and Islamophobia appears to have been around a bit longer than I initially thought:
Islamophobia denotes prejudice against, or hatred or irrational fear of, Muslims. The term dates back to the early 1900s, but its modern use originates during the late 1980s or early 1990s. It entered the common vocabulary after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
I still find the word Islamophobia a bit forced, linguistically, even though the condition is real, politically.
Politico talked to the AP about “homophobia” in particular:
The online Style Book now says that “-phobia,” “an irrational, uncontrollable fear, often a form of mental illness” should not be used “in political or social contexts,” including “homophobia” and “Islamophobia.” It also calls “ethnic cleansing” a “euphemism,” and says the AP “does not use ‘ethnic cleansing’ on its own. It must be enclosed in quotes, attributed and explained.”
“Ethnic cleansing is a euphemism for pretty violent activities, a phobia is a psychiatric or medical term for a severe mental disorder. Those terms have been used quite a bit in the past, and we don’t feel that’s quite accurate,” AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn told POLITICO.
“When you break down ‘ethnic cleansing,’ it’s a cover for terrible violent activities. It’s a term we certainly don’t want to propagate,” Minthorn continued. “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.”
A mental disability?
I don’t know anyone who uses the term “homophobia” to mean that someone is clinically insane, or mentally unstable, or whatever other pretzel AP would like to tie itself into over this word. Having said that, even the law requires a “rational basis” for anti-gay political actors, so to call the fear of gays and our civil rights “irrational,” and based on an “uncontrollable fear,” strikes me as spot on.
George Weinberg, the author of “Society and the Healthy Homosexual” (1972), who coined the word “homophobia”, weighs in by email:
“I just want to go on record as disagreeing with the AP’s decision not to use ‘homophobia,’ the word. I am a psychologist and author who coined the word a long time ago. It made all the difference to City Councils and other people I spoke to. It encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so. Maybe envy in some cases. But that’s a psychological question. Is every snarling dog afraid? Probably yes. But here it shouldn’t matter. We have no other word for what we’re talking about, and this one is well established. We use ‘freelance’ for writers who don’t throw lances anymore, and who want to get paid for their work. Fowler even allows us to mix what he called dead metaphors. It seems curious that this word is getting such scrutiny while words like triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13) hangs around.”
Of course, what the AP is afraid of is picking sides. Using the word “homophobia” is to suggest that there isn’t a rational basis for thinking that the marriage of gay couples will somehow make hetero marriages fall apart. And the word “Islamophobia” suggests that Republicans who are afraid that the greatest threat to Topeka is the Sharia aren’t bat-s crazy, when they actually are.
I will say that it’s not entirely clear when AP would use the word homophobia (or Islamophobia for that matter), in any case. Other than in a quote, I’m hard pressed to think of when AP would use it in a news story. Still…
And same goes for “ethnic cleansing,” another term AP is unfortunately banning – doesn’t it mean a tad more than simply “pretty violent activities”? I suppose you could say “systematic effort to forcibly deport or kill an entire ethnic minority.” But if people already know that that’s what ethnic cleansing means, then why not just use the term when its appropriate (Milosevic in Bosnia comes to mind), since it’s more economical and the meaning is clear on its face?
You know who else banned the phrase ethnic cleansing? (Just kidding. But only kind of.)