Why do we use the terms that we do to describe different forms of dislike, or prejudice, or hatred? The most straightforward are terms that use the Latin prefix anti-, meaning against. Beginning in the seventeenth century (with the term anti-Catholic), making use of the Latin prefix anti- in this way was the standard English-language approach to describing speech or behavior expressing prejudice against a specific group. By the nineteenth century, as discussion of prejudice grew, the language correspondingly expanded; anti-Jewish, antisemitic, anti-Negro, anti-black, anti-German, anti-Muslim—these and other such terms were all coined in the nineteenth century.
In the twentieth century, a new trend arose—the practice of employing in such contexts words with -phobia or -phobic embedded within them. We began, in other words, to use words meaning irrationally fearful of to denote language or behavior that is expressive of hatred towards. Particularly since 9/11, a common term for those engaging in anti-Muslim speech or behavior has been Islamophobic. In similar fashion, homophobic has (according to Google Ngram) come to be used roughly twice as often as anti-gay as a term used to describe those engaging in anti-gay speech or behavior. And transphobic is used roughly ten times more frequently than is anti-trans.
With the exception of xenophobic, words using the -phobic suffix did not take root until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first known appearance of the word homophobic in print was on 5 May 1969—just a few weeks before the Stonewall uprising. As the New York Times has reported it, Dr. George Weinberg (who has claimed to have thought of the term some years earlier) was in touch “with the gay activists Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, who used the new term in a column they wrote for Screw magazine, … discussing the fear felt by straight men that they might be gay.” By the end of the year the word had appeared in Time magazine as well, in a feature article entitled “The Homosexual in America,” and by the early 1970s these ideas were being widely discussed both in psychological circles and in the broader community. Everyone was suddenly aware of the degree to which the most virulent forms of anti-gay speech and behavior could often be found among men who had repressed or denied within themselves a powerful desire for sex with other men; their hatred for men who did express such desires was plausibly said to be rooted in a fear of having to confront the full nature of their own sexuality (this in an age when same-sex desire remained largely taboo). Before long the term homophobic had come to be widely used not just of men who were conflicted about their own sexuality but of anyone who expressed anti-gay feelings—and that remains the case today.
The rise of Islamophobic is similarly understandable. Until the late 1990s (again, according to Google Ngram) Islamophobic was a word almost never used; anti-Muslim was used more than a hundred times more frequently. Starting in 1994 (just after the first attack on the World Trade Center) Islamophobic began to be used with increased frequency, and usage began to soar following 9/11. By 2020 Islamophobic had still not overtaken anti-Muslim, but it seemed well on the way to doing so. Once again, hatred was plausibly linked to fear—in this case, fear not of suppressed desires lurking within, but of external threats. Much as the voices of reason pointed out again and again that the terrorist acts were the work of a tiny minority, and should in no way be taken to reflect on all Muslims, fear of terrorism came to be linked in many minds with negative feelings towards all of Islam, and all Muslims.
It’s easy to understand, then, why we have come to use words such as homophobic and Islamophobic so frequently to describe hate-fueled language and behavior. But should we? Are they in fact better terms to use than are anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and so on? Or are they—as they seem to me to be—deeply problematic?
It’s on two grounds that they seem to me to be the wrong words to use as umbrella terms describing deep feelings directed against a particular group. The first is accuracy. The suffixes -phobic and -phobia in words such as homophobic and homophobia are, like so many words relating to medical or psychological conditions, borrowed from ancient Greek—in this case, the ancient Greek word for fear.
But a phobia, as the word has taken root in English, is not just a fear; it’s an irrational or unjustified fear. Someone who reacts with extreme fear when they see a large spider is not considered to suffer from a phobia if they live in an area in which tarantulas or other deadly spiders are common; it’s if they exhibit such fear when spiders pose no danger to them that they are considered to suffer from arachnophobia. And, it may well be added, a good many people who do not fear spiders nevertheless act towards them in an unnecessarily cruel fashion, killing them upon encountering them inside their homes when they could as easily (and almost as quickly) shoo them outside. Where spiders are concerned, then, the negative attitudes and behaviors that humans so often display toward them are not always linked to fear.
We should ask this, then: do people whose behavior is expressive of hatred towards Muslims always behave in that way out of fear of Muslims? Do people whose behavior is expressive of hatred towards gay people always behave in that way out of fear of gay people or gay sexuality? That some people act in such ways largely or primarily out of fear is unquestionable. It may indeed be that fear is at the root of such behavior most of the time, for most of the people who act in such ways. But for all of the people who act in such ways? And for all of the time when they act in such ways? We know that there can be various other motivating forces for such behavior. Disgust, for one; the deep-rooted disgust among many humans towards practices that entail coming into contact with excrement has surely been to at least some degree connected to anti-gay feeling. The teachings of a variety of Christian denominations, for another: over the course of many centuries Christians of many stripes were taught that God disapproved of the sexual acts that gay men practiced, and that God would send the heathen Muslims straight to Hell. To be clear: prejudice based on disgust or on the wrong-headed teachings of certain religions is no more defensible than is prejudice based on fear. I raise these examples merely to show that it is inaccurate to use terminology that suggests that fear is at the root of all such prejudicial behavior, all of the time.
But even if it were the case that all such behavior were motivated by fear all of the time, using terms that imply hatred to be based always in fear seems to me to be unwise, simply because it seems likely to be counterproductive. Our aim should surely be to reduce anti-gay sentiment and behavior, anti-Muslim sentiment and behavior, and so on—to persuade those who hold such views and who act in such ways that they are mistaken in doing so. But if the terms we use to name such behavior carry within them a presumption as to its motivation, that is surely likely to make persuasion more difficult. Those who are accused of Islamophobia rather than of anti-Muslim behavior might, not unreasonably, ask How can you presume to know my psyche? And they might go on to ask, not unreasonably, Isn’t that typical of the arrogance of the university-educated liberal elite—presuming to know what motivates the beliefs and actions of anyone who does not hold the same set of beliefs that they do?
As a test case, it is worth considering a situation in which strongly negative feelings towards a particular group are clearly appropriate. Let’s take the feelings that our parents or grandparents typically held towards Nazis, and that most of us today hold towards the members of neo-Nazi groups. In holding such feelings and in speaking out against or taking action against such groups, we are expressing anti-Nazi feelings and behavior. How appropriate would we feel it to be if we were described as Nazi-phobic for acting in these ways? Surely we would feel it to be highly inappropriate. It might well be that our parents or grandparents did fear that Hitler’s Nazi regime would succeed in taking over much of the world. And it might well be that people today in France or Italy or America do fear that neo-Nazi movements may take power in those nations. But however much our opposition to Nazism or neo-Nazism may be accompanied by fear, our fear is not the reason for our opposing them. If we were termed Nazi-phobic instead of anti-Nazi, our response would surely be, Fear is not the point! I’m not against Nazi movements because I fear them; I’m against them because I believe what they do to be wrong.
The substance of anti-gay feeling and anti-Islam and anti-trans feeling is of course very different from the substance of anti-Nazi feeling. But there can be no question that many who speak and act against gay and Muslim and trans people do so because they believe it is right to do so—just as we feel that it is right to speak out against Nazism and anti-Nazism. If we are to have any hope of persuading them that they are wrong—and, to be clear, I believe we should try our utmost to do so—we are unlikely to further our cause by using terminology that focuses not on their words and actions in themselves, but on our presumption as to the underlying psychological state that motivates them.
Some who have argued in favor of using terms such as homophobia and Islamophobic have suggested that we should choose homophobic over anti-gay because the use of the latter represents a misguided effort to find a neutral term to describe something hateful. But we can make it clear in myriad ways that we find certain sorts of speech or behavior repugnant and immoral. When we use a neutral descriptive term such as violence in a phrase such as violence against women, it surely does not imply that we are taking a neutral stance in response to such violence. No more so can it be taken to imply that we are taking a “neutral” stance in response to anti-gay language or behavior if we condemn anti-gay slurs and anti-gay violence. We do not have to label it homophobic to make it abundantly clear that we oppose anti-gay speech and anti-gay behavior.
Others have suggested that to use any other terms than homophobia and Islamophobia is to deny that such things are largely rooted in fear. It is no such thing; to use anti-gay instead of homophobic (and anti-Muslim or anti-Islam instead of Islamophobic, and anti-trans instead of transphobic) is not to deny that these things are very often based in irrational fear; it is rather to acknowledge that they are not always rooted in such fear. And—perhaps most importantly—it is also to acknowledge that using terms such as homophobic and Islamophobic can be counterproductive. The practice of using language that associates all hatred with fear tends inevitably to infuriate and alienate those we say we want to persuade (or to “educate”). If we say we want to foster greater understanding and tolerance, we should strive to use terms that do not work against our declared aims—terms, for example, such as anti-gay and anti-Muslim, which presume nothing about psychological motivations. Using such terms may not do anything to make us feel more righteous, but it will be more accurate—and it will have the practical effect of breeding less hatred, not more.
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