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Overthrowing the Tyranny of Language

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 11, 2011

I was favorably impressed with Archbishop Charles Chaput’s comments on homosexual civil unions last week. Listen closely to a key portion of his statement:

The civil unions debate is finally about securing legitimacy for social arrangements and personal behaviors that most societies and religious traditions have found problematic from long experience—and that a great many people see as morally troubling, not because they are ‘haters’ or ‘frightened” or ‘bigots’ or ‘uneducated’—that kind of language is the real bigotry in this debate—but because they’ve carefully thought through the implications for society at large.

He went on to suggest that those implications included a further diminishment in the importance of the fruitful love between a man and a woman which engenders new life. This, indeed, is the State’s primary proper interest in the question. But to me the most important line in the statement was Archbishop Chaput’s identification of the “real bigotry” as consisting of ascribing prejudice, fear, ignorance and hatred as the motives for those who oppose gay marriage and civil unions.

With respect to bigotry, there is an important distinction to be made which in our culture is rapidly being lost. I refer to the distinction between arguing the merits of a case and arguing ad hominem. For example, it is legitimate to argue (however incorrectly) that the Catholic Church teaches this or that erroneous doctrine. But it is not legitimate to argue that a particular idea is to be dismissed because it is advanced by Catholics. Or again, it lies within the bounds of legitimate debate to assert that nuclear weapons ought to be banned, but it is out of bounds to dismiss all those who disagree as profiteers and war mongers.

The ad hominem argument is a classic fallacy because it purports to prove or refute a position by casting aspersions on the intelligence or character of those whose viewpoint is opposed to one’s own. This type of argument always comes down to dismissing the opponent’s case on the grounds that he is either a knave or a fool. It is bad enough when disputants slide into ad hominem arguments in the rough and tumble of impassioned debate. It is far worse, however, when a given culture stigmatizes all those who hold a particular point of view by building an ad hominem attack into the very language used to discuss an issue.

This is what has happened in our culture by settling on a particular term of choice—homophobia—to describe the motive behind any opposition to any aspect of the homosexual agenda. The term literally means “fear of the same” but it refers in our culture to a blind opposition to homosexual behavior. I say blind opposition because the term clearly implies more than mere fear. It suggests hatred rooted in an unnecessary fear based on ignorance—the worst form of bigotry. The assumption behind the use of the term “homophobia” is that if a person of good will were not ignorant, he would see immediately that there is no reason to oppose homosexual behavior, for there is in it nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to despise. Hence the heterosexist prejudice would evaporate into thin air.

But this is very far from the case. Homosexual behavior, like any other behavior, is subject to a rational moral analysis, that we might determine whether this particular behavior is to be pursued or avoided, and why. On the one hand we have the argument that homosexual behavior brings pleasure, satisfaction and consolation to those who are so disposed; that it does no harm; and that there is therefore no rational alternative to viewing it as a legitimate mode of sexual expression. On the other hand, we have the argument that homosexual behavior violates the natural law—a deep concern which goes to the root of how we know whether some actions are good or evil, desirable or undesirable; that love and fruitful marriage between one man and one woman is essential to both the stability and the prosperity of society; that this kind of union—and only this kind—is an important source of personal growth; and that the acceptance and/or encouragement of homosexual behavior is not only bad for the participants but seriously undermines these paramount goods.

Our language should be suited to this discussion. Of course, we all sometimes speak dismissively in private conversation. “Pay no attention to so-and-so; he’s an idiot!” we may say. Or “I’m sick and tired of the terms of the debate being set by people who are altogether selfish and spiritually stunted.” (Our language may be coarser than that.) But we know—or at least we ought to know—that we are taking an enormous shortcut when we say such things, to save ourselves the trouble of a serious discussion, or simply to vent our frustration. When it comes to public engagement we are rightly more wary of our own speech, more circumspect, and more fair.

But above all we must be wary when the very language we use describes things that are subject to analysis in terms which ascribe serious deficiencies to one side before the analysis is even performed. Language is a demonstration of intellect and a representation of the immense dignity of the human person, but it is also a cultural tool. Sometimes it is not so much a way of expressing ideas as enforcing them, not so much a way of freeing the mind as of closing it.

It is not too much to say that the language used in our culture to describe those who argue that homosexual behavior is wrong—particularly the word homophobia—is a preeminent contemporary example of language of the latter sort, language which demeans others and bullies them into parroting a party line, lest they be considered haters, or frightened, or uneducated. And as Archbishop Chaput pointed out, it is precisely this way of using language which constitutes the “real bigotry in this debate”. For it seeks to eliminate the debate; it seeks to demonize.

We need to set an example of intelligent, good and gracious use of language in our own persons and in our own circles, but we are also called to the somewhat stiffer task of opposing the perversion of language in others, and particularly in the brain-numbing linguistic formulations of the dominant culture. This is in fact a spiritual work of mercy, but it is also the kind of arduous and unpopular task that can lead, at many levels, to martyrdom. There is, after all, nothing which makes people quite so uncomfortable as clear thought. Nonetheless, by virtue of our very nature as persons, we are all called to this task. In all its applications, day in and day out, this is one of the most critical apostolic missions of our time.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: impossible - Apr. 13, 2011 11:20 PM ET USA

    You're absolutely right on, but to do justice to this topic could well take an entire book.

  • Posted by: josephfegan - Apr. 13, 2011 12:49 AM ET USA

    Good writing, Dr Jeff

  • Posted by: rjdobie9424 - Apr. 11, 2011 10:27 PM ET USA

    Actually, the term "homophobia" makes no etymological sense: it is, of course, based on the term "homosexual" which is a Greek/Latin hybrid meaning "sex with a (a member of the) same (gender)." "Phobia" is, of course, Greek for "fear." So, literally, "homophobia" means "fear of the same" - precisely the opposite of what it purports to mean! It would seem that users of such linguistic monstrosities as "homophobia" are the true ignoramouses.

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