Of Bullies, Bigots, Homophobes: The Changing American Vocabulary

Over the past two or three years, words that once held specific meaning have been “appropriated” by ideologies, interest groups, or even just ignorant websites and misused — misused to such an extent people seem to be forgetting “that word doesn’t mean what you think it means;” at least, it didn’t.

One of the first was the Latin suffix –phobia, which was eventually used as a tool by the homosexual advocacy movement to brand its opponents “homophobes.”  The fact their opponents didn’t have a phobia about homosexuality was irrelevant.  A “phobia” brings with it a negative connotation, and the name-calling had the intended effect:  Opponents of the imposition of the homosexual agenda were forced to defend themselves; the argument changed to one of labels rather than positions.  Pastor Greg Laurie recently addressed the semantics, saying “homophobe” was a useless term:

I hate the word ‘homophobic because I can just as easily come back and say ‘well, you’re biblophobic to say I’m homophobic.

Others have latched onto the semantic trend, resulting in such malapropisms as Islamophobe.  While the term has actually been around for decades, it has only recently been popularized in ideological movements.  The objective of the person using the pejorative term remains the same; it is unrelated to any actual fear of Islam — it is nothing more than a semantic slur.  A recent article in a Canadian paper made this very point, calling for a “moratorium” on the use of the word and saying

To accuse all opponents of Islam of harboring a deep-seated hatred, rooted in irrational fear, is a serious mistake, exemplified by the sweeping and liberal usage of Islamophobia.

Even the Associated Press has ceased use of the term, saying

“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.”

Another popularly redefined word is bigot.  What was once a very tailored term is now used to belittle virtually any person expressing the opposite belief to one’s own — especially when those opposing beliefs are rooted in religion.  The negative connotation associated in the succinct term probably contributed to its evenutal status as internet shorthand for mere disagreement — though the word still carries a connotation far worse.

More recently, many have tried to jump on the bully bandwagon.  If someone criticizes, disagrees with, or is in some way expresses a lack of total agreement, they are now branded “bullies.”  Long forgotten is the oversized-kid in school who physically tormented his smaller peers.  Now a bully can be someone who simply expresses a thought contrary to one’s own.

The “bandwagon” description may in some way explain why the American vocabulary has changed as it has.  When one group sees another achieve a political or public relations victory using certain terminology, others are more apt to adopt the same terminology to achieve their ends, even if the words aren’t at all applicable.

Others are trying to redefine terms, though they’ve yet to catch on.  Michael Weinstein, for example, has tried to recapitalize the word rape. So far he seems to be the only one using the term of physical assault in a spiritual sense.

That’s not even mentioning the apparent lack of understanding about whether American society is religiously tolerant or religiously pluralist.  Many Americans probably don’t even know the difference between the two.

Even something as simple as “discrimination” is now vastly misunderstood, which Dr. Albert Mohler recently explained.  If asked if “discrimination” is acceptable, most would probably say no without hesitation — even the hesitation to ask “in what context?” The US military, for example, routinely — legally, and rightly — discriminates.  Weigh 400 pounds?  Sorry, you’re not able to enlist.

The discussion, ultimately, is far more complex.  Words do change in social use; what was once an acceptable term may eventually be considered offensive. (In the English language, the term “Negro” comes to mind.)  Likewise, the more accepted meaning of a word may be overwhelmed by the elevation of its less common meaning. (See the Flintstones and their “gay old time.”)

This isn’t a problem to be fixed, in the strictest sense of those terms; it is more the environment to be understood.  First, a discussion or debate cannot be effectively conducted unless the parties involved begin with a common understanding of shared terms.  Second, in today’s sound-bite, fast-food, headline-only internet age, it is increasingly likely terms will be used without regard to what they actually mean — rather, the focus will be on the reactions they generate.

It is important to note, however, that re-definition of words can have significant impact on the culture.  Change the language, and you may very well change the culture.