Phobiaphobia

Recent changes to the Associated Press’ online style book remove the use of “-phobia,” notably “homophobia” and “Islamophobia”. AP Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn explains the rationale:

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.

George Weinberg, the psychologist who coined the word in 1972, disagrees with the AP’s new position:

It encapsulates a whole point of view and of feeling. It was a hard-won word, as you can imagine. It even brought me some death threats. Is homophobia always based on fear? I thought so and still think so…. 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.

Zack Ford weighs in on the historical arc of “homophobia” and its implications for “Islamophobia”:

[T]he journey of the word “homophobia” emphasizes the current need for the word “Islamophobia.” As a different concept, it might very well be true that people “fear” Islam, Muslim people, and Muslim culture as a threat to physical safety. Muslim people are unfairly cast as terrorists just as gay men have been cast as pedophiles. While education has opened up new language to describe anti-gay attitudes, rhetorical options for the wide-spread efforts to demonize the Islamic faith remain limited. And like “homophobia” did four decades ago, “Islamophobia” effectively captures the intensity of these vitriolic campaigns. 

Patrick Strudwick concludes:

It is commendable to strive for accurate, neutral reporting and “homophobia” or “Islamophobia” are not ideal, as they denote solely the fear motivating prejudice. But they are the best we have. While fear may not be the only force behind such attitudes, it is invariably a chief component.

John Aravosis zooms out:

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.

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.