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AP decision to drop ‘homophobia’ misguided: critics

'It's a useful word and it captures something that is very meaningful and very real,' prof says

An Associated Press (AP) recommendation against using terms like homophobia, ethnic cleansing and Islamophobia is being criticized as wrongheaded and potentially fuelled by an ideological agenda.

AP’s new style guide cautions reporters against using the terms in political or social contexts.

The news agency’s deputy standards editor, Dave Minthorn, says, “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,” he explains.

Minthorn suggests using “something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such. We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing.”

Elise Chenier, an associate professor in Simon Fraser University’s department of history, finds AP’s new reluctance to use homophobia, ethnic cleansing and Islamophobia disturbing. The combined discouragement of all three terms is a “quite clear indication of an ideological project at work here.”

She says it’s important to pay “very close attention” to the fact that the three are being linked together.

“People are targeted because they belong to a particular group, and we have an established tradition in Canada of recognizing that through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that you cannot discriminate based on membership in a variety of different groups, including your sex, your religious practice and beliefs, ability and sexual orientation,” Chenier elaborates.

She says the legal protections are not only relevant for judicial redress but set a tone that’s taken up in our culture in a variety of different ways. The media play a key role in helping to shape that culture, she adds.

“If the media is saying we’re shifting away from those kinds of values — the way they cover those stories is going to have a dramatic impact on the way people think about these issues.”

What’s “especially concerning,” Chenier adds, is AP’s notion that there are terms that are more neutral.

“If they said a term that was more precise, I might not be so concerned,” she says. “But the idea that one can be neutral in describing acts of hatred towards people simply because they belong to a group — I don’t think those things can be described in neutral terms.”

In a Nov 29 commentary on AP’s decision, Patrick Strudwick of The Guardian suggests the news agency’s argument that these terms are inaccurate isn’t neutral or precise either.

“It reveals a banquet of their own assumptions about what governs prejudice. It illustrates the chasm of understanding between an onlooker struggling to read a situation and a victim who, through jabbing repetition, comprehends it only too well.”

Minthorn declined to comment and referred Xtra to media relations director Paul Colford. Colford did not return Xtra’s call before press time.

In an email to the Poynter Institute of journalism, Minthorn elaborates on the rationale behind the guidelines.

“We feel that ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have two shortcomings: they are not specific, and can also imply a psychiatric condition,” he states.

“We always owe it to readers to say exactly what we mean. Instead of terms that try to describe some general state of mind, we always prefer to say what a person’s position is or how he acts.”

In his own email to the Poynter Institute, Michael Triplett, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, says AP’s decision has sparked discussion among the organization’s members, the consensus being that AP is “probably correct in terms of the literalism of the word homophobia.”

The feeling was that homophobia may not be the most ideal term to characterize anti-gay actions or motivations.

“Use ‘LGBT rights opponents’ or a similar phrase instead of ‘homophobes’ when describing people who disagree with LGBT rights activism,” he says.

Chenier disagrees. Homophobia is “a useful word and it captures something that is very meaningful and very real,” she says, adding that the word refers to an act committed against someone simply because that person is gay.

Still, she acknowledges there’s room to be critical of the limitations of the word. She wonders, for example, whether the usual definition of homophobia — a fear of homosexuality — accurately captures the motivation behind anti-gay actions. “Do we know it’s fear?” she asks.

Look at gaybashers, she says. “Are they afraid of gay men? I don’t think so. Are they fearful that their own identity is undermined by the presence of gay men? Sure.”

The meaning of words changes all the time, she observes. But inadequacies of the term homophobia aside, “when we say it, we know what we mean.”

Keep homophobia, she suggests, but develop a more elaborate language that captures the more complex ways in which acts of hatred, acts of violence and acts of exclusion play out.

The Baltimore Sun’s language expert John E McIntyre describes AP’s logic for the change as “reasoned, principled and wrongheaded.”

He says he understands AP’s reasons for discouraging use of the word, noting that it’s similar to words like racism or sexism or misogyny, which can be used casually and personally about people when it’s not possible to say with assurance that they hold those views. But he says they are all real things.

“We see the evidence of them and it’s a useful term.”

Homophobia isn’t a term that implies only mental illness, he adds. He, too, notes that words evolve over time. He says one of his readers pointed out that a phobia can be a mental disorder or indicate a strong aversion.

“For those reasons, I think it is a word that ought to be deployed with some caution, but to discourage it altogether is merely misguided.”

Strudwick says terms like homophobia are often the best we have. And while fear may not be the only motivation behind such attitudes, he says, it is “invariably a chief component.”

“I can report with a certainty rarely enjoyed by straight journalists that being anti-gay is, without exception, at least partly fuelled by fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of unwanted sexual attention, fear of gender roles being flouted, fear of humanity being wiped out by widespread bumming, fear of a plague of homosexuals dismantling marriage, the family, the church and any other institution held vaguely dear,” he writes.

“And, of course, never forget: fear of what lurks repressed and unacknowledged in the homophobe. Irrational fear,” he says.

He says that to ban reporters from describing the Ugandan MP David Bahati, who included the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” in an anti-homosexuality bill, as homophobic, for example, doesn’t censor just journalists. “It blinds and deafens everyone else to what is really going on.”