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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the meaning and overuse of words...

Today on Facebook, I ran across this link on the Trevor Project's feed.  I was struck by the use of the word "homophobic" and decided to view the video and see what the "casually homophobic question" was.  I was expecting something more than what we got.  The video is of Ewan McGregor being asked by George Stephanopoulos (in 2010) about a kiss between Ewan and Jim Carrey at an awards ceremony (or something similar).  I definitely approved of Ewan's answer which was basically to ask why it was a huge deal, but I couldn't help but wonder why the question was deemed "homophobic."  After all, homophobia is "unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality." (  The question, while silly and a little ignorant, does not seem to rise to the level of homophobia.  This thought then got me thinking about the use of certain pejorative terms in out political and social discourse.

My problem with the terms stems not from the terms themselves, but rather from the fact that they are massively overrused by all parties concerned.  We blithely throw around words like "hypocrite", "homophobic", "sexist", "misogynistic", or other similar terms to denigrate views or people we disagree with.  The problem with the way we throw the words around is that they come to mean really nothing at all.  After all, if everyone who disagrees with what the gay community wants is homophobic, then we have stripped the word of its meaning.  In our desire to protect ourselves or our opinions, we have in reality hurt them.  You can disagree with a certain perspective without being unreasoningly fearful of it.  There may be a valid reason behind the disagreement.

The other problem is that words like this shut down discourse.  After all, if the person you are arguing/debating/discussing with immediately resorts to these sorts of terms, they really don't have a good case to fall back on.  After all, resorting to ad hominem type arguments (like these) is the last refuge of a bad case.  Or at least, it should be.  All too often, it is the first resort of any type of case.  A good discourse requires that both sides be open to the possibility that the other side has a point.  After all, if that is not the case, then why are you discoursing?  Do you have to agree with them?  Of course not.  But you do need to acknowledge that they might have a point and it is worth considering.

But if the other person is throwing out baseless or overblown charges/names, then (naturally) you aren't going to talk with them because those sorts of actions indicate a closed mind that is not open to discussion.  It indicates a certain dogmatism or strict doctrinarity that impedes the search for the truth and a good discussion.

So, the nest time you see something like this, ask yourself:  Is this word really true?  Is it necessary?  If the answer to either is no, don't use it.  Restore the meanings to the words.