>> Tuesday, November 27, 2012
So, apparently the Associated Press has decided their writers shouldn't be using the terms "homophobia", "Islamophobia" or "ethnic cleansing". I learn this secondhand, as the Associated Press hasn't actually put me on their mailing list nor included me in any of their high-level stylistic decisions for some reason. Surely this is unfair. Am I not a trusted purveyor of reliable, trustworthy news?
Harumph, I says. And harumph, I means.
So the rationale, we're told, is that "ethnic cleansing" is a euphemism and phobias are psychiatric conditions. Ah. Well, it's actually a little hard to disagree with the first of those, though it's also a little hard to agree with it: I find the phrase "ethnic cleansing" a little disturbing insofar as it conjures up images of euthanasia, though the "cleansing" bit has me picturing something along the lines of a Nazi death factory only whiter and more sterile, Sobibor meets THX-1138, which isn't a fair portrayal of what actually happens in most of our contemporary "ethnic cleanses", which involve quite a lot more gunpowder, knives, blood in the streets, rape gangs, etc. and not a lot of ruthless efficiency and dust-free climate-controlled areas.
But then what else would you like to call it? Mass-murder, I suppose, or genocide. But the problem with these terms is they've lost their effectiveness as much as ethnic cleansing now has, and ethnic cleansing was a euphemism that, I think, was actually created for its ugliness. It wasn't supposed to comfort, so much as it was supposed to convey an attempt to remove a group of people from existence like you might try to get rid of spilled soup down a shirtfront; I think it was a euphemism chosen for its very capacity to horrify, which is the opposite of what a euphemism does by its definition, making "ethnic cleansing" a kind of anti-euphemism or dysphemism. (Aside: I'm disappointed to discover I've failed to coin a word when I thought I was being very clever. Oh well.)
But what I find more unfortunate is the AP's decision regarding homophobia and Islamophobia:
"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 propgate [sic]," 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."
I'm not sure how inaccurate or off the mark the phrase "homophobia" is, though. Or that describing someone as a "homophobe" when they engage in speech of conduct from which one might reasonably infer they have a mental disability is "suggesting knowledge that we don't have". I certainly see the epistemological issue, insofar as, no, you perhaps don't know with certainty what is in someone's heart. (I almost wrote, "someone else's", but how do you even know with certainty what's in your own?)
But we can make the same kinds of claims about things like the sun rising or whether my cat is hungry: I don't know with utter certainty that there won't be some cosmic disaster in the next twelve-or-so hours that causes the Earth to freeze on its axis or spin madly off course or the sun to violently explode and engulf the world eight minutes after; and while my cat might be making a piteous sound and urgently threading himself between my feet until the can of cat food is opened and deposited in his bowl, whereupon he vigorously scarfs down the pile of mushed meat, I have to say I can't read his tiny, walnut-sized brain and I'm only making inferences based upon his actions.
Should you express irrational and hateful sentiments against someone because of their romantic or sexual preferences, or direct hateful actions against someone expressly because of their religious status and not for something they did or said that merits some such response--well, I don't think I'm going all that far astray in concluding from this evidence that you're lacking rational faculties and might even be psychologically diseased. That you need counseling or could possibly benefit from a pill if such a pharmaceutical exists. That you might be expressing yourself in these ways out of ignorance, yes, but that if you persist despite attempts made to educate you, there is some logical inference that your cultivated and maintained ignorance is actually the product of behaviorally or chemically caused mental dysfunction. That perhaps you are repressing something and would benefit from psychoanalysis. Or that your neurotransmitters are not adequately neurotransmitting. Why, depending on the severity of your symptoms, I might even reasonably conclude from the evidence that you're what can safely be called a sick fuck and if you won't respond to treatment and can't properly be distanced from society (institutionalization seems a bit much unless you're actively a danger to yourself or others), politely and compassionately ignored to the extent you aren't becoming a danger to yourself or others.
It seems to me that the Associated Press is cowing to that crowd of people who gets very insulted and angry when they are called "homophobes" or "Islamophobes" after they've wallowed in homophobic or Islamophobic words or deeds. They perceive these labels as being stigmatizing or insulting, you see; which, to be fair, they really are meant to be stigmatizing and insulting, and this leads us to the sole possible merit of the AP's position, namely that calling homophobes homophobic is arguably an insult to agoraphobics and others who suffer from clinical anxiety disorders. To which I can only say that agoraphobics generally seem to have a better record of admitting they have a problem and seeking treatment, and shouldn't get defensive about needing such, in any case, and if a homophobe feels stigmatized by being diagnosed with homophobia, perhaps he ought to reexamine his own behavior.
I feel obligated to add that I do think the argument Laura Beck makes at Jezebel is a little disingenuous even if it's technically correct. It's true that we talk about light-adverse creatures as being "photophobic" as opposed to "phototropic", for instance. But I think we all probably know that part of the sting of words like "homophobia" and "Islamophobia" is the accusation of cowardice contained within the "phobia" suffix. I just don't have a problem with that, though. If you have an irrational fear of gay people, you're irrationally afraid, what else is that supposed to mean? And I don't see how being concerned, say for instance, that a gay teacher is going to somehow engayify your children through proximity is anything less than an irrational fear: fear of the teacher, fear of your own preconceptions about gays, fear of a lack of control over how your child will turn out, fear that your child's adult sexual preferences will somehow reflect back upon you, etc. All of which I would file under cowardice, yes, and insecurity and possibly illness.