When Insults No Longer InsultJAMES NEUCHTERLEIN
Take the curious case of the term “homophobia,” a word now commonly applied to those who in any way or for whatever reason find homosexual behavior objectionable or even problematic.
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Some years ago I participated in an academic conference whose main attraction was the late Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind. Over the several days of the conference, Bloom, as spirited and engaging a performer off platform as on, held the spotlight. He was a brilliant and contradictory presence -- outrageously outspoken, yet almost morbidly sensitive to criticism -- and he put on a show that, if sometimes unsettling, was always dazzling.
The conference had a curious aftermath. Months after it ended, I received an agitated phone call from another of the participants. He had heard from several sources, he said, that in the course of the conference Bloom had admitted to being a racist. He was calling me because the purported confession had occurred at a dinner where Bloom and I had sat side by side. Indeed, Bloom had reportedly made the confession to me.
My first reaction was baffled denial. Nothing of the sort had happened, I said. This was a total fabrication, and those advancing it should be called to account. As I mentally reconstructed the conversation of the evening, however, I slowly came to realize how the misunderstanding had developed.
In a long evening of talk, Bloom had touched on various aspects of his academic career, including his days at Cornell during the black power uprising in the sixties. Bloom recounted that he had opposed the radicals and their demands, and that the students had, quite predictably, accused him of racism. "And of course," I interjected, "they were right." By which I meant, in the verbal shorthand that our prior conversation had set up, that from the perspective of those who equated opposition to black radicalism with racism, he was guilty as charged. "Of course," he replied. So it was that those who had missed (or misconstrued) the shorthand heard the conversation as Bloom's confession that he was, in fact, a racist.
Misunderstandings aside, little has changed in the years since. Racism is still what black activists define it to be. Just recently, for example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson complained of a "kind of anti-black mania, a kind of white riot" sweeping the nation. It was not just Klansmen in white sheets spreading racial hatred, he said, but also legislators "in blue suits who use thinly coded, veiled race signals when they say ‘welfare' and ‘crime' and ‘three strikes' and ‘end affirmative action.'" There it is: to be concerned with welfare, crime, or quotas is to be a racist. Of course.
Comments like Jackson's fall into the category of argument by insult. They are meant not to advance public discussion but to end it. They are conversation-stoppers, forms of moral blackmail. Those who dissent from the views of the civil rights establishment are not just wrong but immoral. White sheets or blue suits, Klansmen or critics of quotas-they are all alike and all categorically to be dismissed by right-thinking folk. Only the politically orthodox qualify for entry into the conversation. Why talk to bigots?
The political uses of argument by insult are difficult to resist, and they now extend well beyond the boundaries of race. Take the curious case of the term "homophobia," a word now commonly applied to those who in any way or for whatever reason find homosexual behavior objectionable or even problematic.
People with phobias, it is generally understood, are people with problems. The dictionary describes the term as "an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object or group of objects." To be phobic is to be sick, in need of treatment. Homophobia, in this sense, is worse than racism: it compounds immorality with pathology.
The only problem with the term is that we have in it an epithet in search of a condition. Beyond its ideological uses, it does not truly exist. It will be found nowhere in the clinical lexicon. There are, it is true, people with exaggerated fear of or aversion to homosexuals, but these are not today the people to whom the term primarily applies. A homophobe, in current usage, is anyone who objects to the agenda of the gay rights community. Homophobes are people who vote against gay rights ordinances and who resist recognition-legal or moral-of same-sex marriage.
It is all quite remarkable. Until very recently, opposition to homosexuality has been an all but universal social norm. Within a single generation, that norm has been turned on its head. It is now not homosexual behavior that needs to be defended or explained, but rather objection to such behavior. Opposition to homosexuality has become a suspect moral category: thus the now automatic grouping of "homophobia" with racism and sexism (the last another term so elastic in its application as to become meaningless).
In this view, there is no significant distinction to be made between the attitudes, on the one hand, of philosophers, psychologists, and theologians who regard homosexual practice as an objective disorder and, on the other hand, of gangs of skinheads eagerly in search of gays to bash. It is all-if at varying levels of sophistication-bigotry and prejudice, and it follows that decent people will have nothing to do with any of it.
America's religious communities have a particular stake in seeing that the conversation-stoppers not be allowed to set the terms of discussion on this matter. Jews and Christians alike believe that there is a divinely ordained right order of things, and that our sexuality finds appropriate expression within that order in monogamous heterosexual unions. It takes no extraordinary perception to see that God created men and women for each other. Indeed, it requires a remarkable capacity for denial of the obvious to get around that intent. Homosexuals have the right to expect of the rest of us decent and respectful treatment as human beings and citizens. They have no right to insist that we surrender our fundamental moral beliefs in order that they might feel comfortable with their sexual behavior.
Moral conversation in America has been corrupted virtually beyond recognition. People raised to consider the term "racist" a searing moral judgment-and for whom "homophobe" had no meaning at all (the dictionary lists its first usage in 1969)-find themselves in a world of moral jabberwocky where words mean whatever those hurling them at ideological opponents claim they mean. You are a bigot if Jesse Jackson says so and a homophobe if you think that gay and straight are not morally fungible conditions.
When words lose coherent meaning, they also lose their power to shame. "Racism," "sexism," and "homophobia" have become such words. Labels that should horrify are simply shrugged off: if I am a racist merely by virtue of thinking that busing and quotas are bad ideas, so be it.
You know you are in a culture war when you are so morally estranged from your adversary that he has lost the capacity to insult you.
Nuechterlein, James. "This Time: When Insults No Longer Insult." First Things 65 (August/September 1996): 13-14.
Reprinted with permission of First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to First Things call 1-800-783-4903.
James Nuechterlein is the editor of First Things.
Copyright © 1996 First Things
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