The word ‘homophobia’ likely had some good operational use when it was coined by G. Weinberg in the 60s-70s, which at that time referred to irrational fear or phobia of persons with same-sex sexual inclination. But now homophobia has a plurality of definitions, with even one scholarly work robustly defining homophobia to encompass any negative criticism of homosexuality or same-sex sexual behaviors. (Fyfe, 1983). Some of these newer, broader definitions have led some commentators to lament, claiming that these uses have lost operational precision. (Hudson and Ricketts, 1980). William O’Donohue and Christine Caselles (1993) take the concern further by arguing that some of these changes of definition are problematic because they are too vague or attach pejorative connotations to one side of an open debate concerning the moral status of homosexuality and same-sex sexual behaviour. Philosopher Gary Colwell has come to a similar conclusion about the uses of the term ‘homophobia’. Colwell says this (1999):
The boundary of the term ‘homophobia’ is made so elastic that it can stretch around, not just phobias, but every kind of rational fear as well; and not just around every kind of fear, but also around every critical posture or idea that anyone may have about the practice of homosexuality. (p. 220)
Colwell’s point is that sometimes the meaning of the term ‘homophobia’ is so flexible that it can be used to encompass any critical idea of homosexuality and same-sex sexual acts. A rhetorical benefit of this flexibility is that just about any critic of homosexuality or same-sex sexual behavior can be cast as homophobe or a bigot, or an otherwise bad person. Knowing about this use of language, critics or would-be critics of same-sex sexual behavior or relationships are made to choose between silence and vilification. In addition, critical arguments and ideas involving negative evaluations of homosexuality and same-sex sexual practices can also dubbed as homophobic or bigoted, which then discourages or silences their expression within public discourse, even without addressing the reason or justification for these evaluations. Thus, the truth or justification of these evaluations is treated as irrelevant or inconsequential—the concern is with whether these evaluations conform to the new sexual orthodoxy. The pursuit of truth is thus assailed–that’s a problem.
Colwell’s paper becomes even more interesting: He also argues that the definition of ‘homophobia’ has been used fallaciously, particularly when an arguer presumes the definition of ‘homophobia’ in a way contentious to his opponent. For example: Suppose an arguer presumes a definition of ‘homophobia’ that encompasses any negative evaluation of homosexuality, same-sex sexual acts or relations. Suppose further that, in using this definition, the arguer infers that the critic or the critic’s conclusion is homophobic. In this case, the arguer likely begs the question or commits the fallacy of persuasive definition, for whether there is justifiable criticism for homosexuality and same-sex sexual acts, one not aptly described in terms of “fear”, “hatred” or “bigotry”, is likely a part of that which is at stake between the arguer and the critic; and so this matter cannot be presumed and used against the critic without fallacy. But as any vocal critic of same-sex sexual acts will tell us, these fallacious inferences happen a lot in public debate. In fact, I have heard several people state that if a person disagrees with the actively gay lifestyle (that is, being sexually engaged), then that person is a “homophobe”. There were no qualifications added or implied–it would not matter why this person disagreed, no. It would only matter that he disagreed. These people reason in ways described by Colwell.
In a similar vein, an article that recently grasped my attention reported the belief that disagreement with the moral permissibility of homosexuality is as a belief “fundamentally incompatible” with western liberalism and tolerance. Yet, that is a weird claim to make, for tolerance regarding homosexuality presupposes disagreement, and so disagreement cannot be incompatible with tolerance. But more importantly, what we see here is a presumed and contentious definition of tolerance, one that is used to frame the beliefs of critics as problematic for western, liberal society. These critics are thus framed as inimical ideologues against western, liberal society. Now I admit: I am a critic of modern, 1960s-style western liberalism, so take from that what you may, but I take serious objection to that understanding of tolerance as appropriate to frame this debate, for it is unfair and uncharitable to the more traditionally-minded thinkers. But let’s move on: Consider ‘heterosexism’.
The word ‘heterosexism’ is a neologism referring to those ideas or beliefs that see heterosexuality or heterosexual sex as the only natural sexuality or sexual behaviour, a sexuality or behaviour superior to any other. But the word itself is constructed to conjure ideas of sexism (hetero-sexism), a concept that carries a lot of negative connotation in the West. Thence, just from viewing the written word or hearing it said aloud, a person is meant to associate its referent with something bad and oppressive. Moreover, the word itself is typically used within a context about unwanted discrimination and oppression, or its referent is sometimes explicitly stated as an oppression. Hence, it is quite clear that the creators and users of this word aim to stigmatize “heterosexist” beliefs and stigmatize those persons who believe them. So what’s the big deal with this? Well, there are two problems.
First, the creators and users of the word ‘heterosexism’ are trying to solidify or perpetuate a belief or attitude through arational means. They are not trying to warrant belief or attitude through rational demonstration or argument, but through the manipulation of language and propaganda. In this way, they denigrate the value of human reason, for they intentionally circumvent our reason. Informed readers should not be surprised by this tactic, because these sorts of manipulations for public persuasion have been a model for gay rights activism since the 80s. In fact, some gay rights activists explicitly admit that they prefer and target arational means for persuasion (Read Feser speaking about the book ‘After the Ball’. His quotations are accurate–I checked myself).
Second, what is picked out by the word ‘heterosexism’ is shared by many Abrahamic faiths, including my own (see para. 2357), and even some other traditionally minded individuals. Hence, these faiths and these people’s beliefs are stigmatized, not through rational judgement of our respective positions, but through the manipulation of language and political framing. But, of course, whether heteronormative conceptions and values are true, justified or good is an active part of that which is at stake within this cultural debate; thus, these progressivists who propagate the word ‘heterosexism’ beg the question and act unfairly toward their more traditional counterparts, for they presume part of that which is at stake.
To help see this point, suppose my fellow Catholics depicted “Catholic-phobia” as any negative evaluation of Catholic beliefs, even our heteronormative beliefs regarding sexuality. Suppose further that they framed Catholic-phobia as a bad thing and then pressured people not to be Catholic-phobes, enforcing this pressure by means of social ostracism and stigma. Hence, on this supposition, if you’re a sexual progressivist, then you’re also a Catholic-phobe. Now, is this fair? I don’t think so. In this scenario, I’d object, even as a Catholic, for I would find it unfair and uncharitable to my progressivist opponents. I would say that it begs a question. I would also say that it is a denigration of human reason, for it aims to secure persuasion by means other than or contrary to reasoned judgement.
So given the concerns mentioned within this blogpost, I distance myself from the words ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism’, just as I do with the words ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’. And I think you should, too. For these words function more like ideographs and scarlet letters, often revealing more about the mindset of the word user than anything else. In saying this, I don’t mean to deny that some of those things often picked out by the word ‘homophobia’ exist. For example, teasing, bullying, threats, and physical violence toward homosexual persons exist and they are deplorable. I don’t doubt that. My concern is just with what else the word ‘homophobia’ has been used to pick out, which, in this case, are those traditional beliefs about sexuality and its norms that stand in contrast to this new sexual revolution.
So how should discussion proceed if we shouldn’t use these politically marred words? Here’s some suggestions. Knock off the demonization. Adopt some humility. Presume that your opponent is sincere, rational and of good will. Open your ears: Listen to the differences regarding philosophical anthropology, sexuality, the purpose or end of sex (if any), political ideals, and ideas of the good(s). Quit dumbing stuff down to slogans and caricatures. Reason together. I’m not saying that this will solve our problems, but it is a lot better than shouting ‘bigot!’ at each other.
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