In its never-ending effort to avoid misleading language in news coverage, The Associated Press Stylebook has decided to declare “Islamophobia,” “homophobia” and presumably other non-clinical uses of the word “phobia” to be a new taboo.
What's the problem? “It's just off the mark,” AP deputy standards editor Dave Minthorn explained to Politico. “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.”
Too bad. Words have power. Striking out such commonly used and unfortunately timely terms strikes me as a linguistic blow for blandness.
I hope that this move only is applied to news reporters who are obligated to sound detached, disinterested and objective. I became an opinion writer so I could call out knuckleheads as we see them.
Even so, I don't want to overdo it. Terms like homophobia and Islamophobia are like “racist” or “sexist,” powerful invectives that get attention but also run the risk of turning off dialogue before it can be turned on.
But psychologist George Weinberg, who coined the word “homophobia” in his 1972 book “Society and the Healthy Homosexual,” disagreed with the AP's decision, according to The Advocate, a leading gay-oriented magazine. The “hard-won word” was so politically potent that it “made all the difference to city councils and other people I spoke to,” Weinberg told interviewer Andy Humm. Whether homophobia is based on fear or “maybe envy in some cases,” it shouldn't matter, he said: “We have no other word for what we're talking about, and this one is well established.”
As for Islamophobia, I can think of no better word to describe some of the irrational fears I have seen on public display, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Yet one expert, American Muslim author Eboo Patel, founding president of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core and member of President Obama's inaugural advisory council on faith-based initiatives, tried to give the argument a constructive spin:
“For me, the most important thing to highlight is not the particular name we give to the irrational fear of a particular identity group,” he told me in an email. “It's the fact that this fear not only marginalizes the group in question but violates the very idea of America. Our nation is based on welcoming the contributions of all communities — gays, Muslims, Evangelicals, Jews, etc. — and nurturing cooperation between them.”