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Guest-posting at Crescat Sententia, Anthony Rickey contends that we should do away with the term "homophobia." I'm sympathetic to the upshot of his argument:

At least as it has come to be used, 'homophobia' has become a method of avoiding debate ... to speak of 'homophobic religious teaching', or a 'homophobia scale' that measures ones political positions on gay marriage and the legality of sodomy (to take two of the top Google hits) is merely to say that there is no rational, ethical, or religious argument that can be made in favor of these positions. Again, not merely that one disagrees with them, but that they are absolutely unsupportable and beyond the bounds of reason, a stance that is at once both dismissive and massively overconfident.

Of course, claiming that one's opponents are beyond the bounds of reason is hardly unique to the pro-gay-rights movement -- consider the way terms like "socialist," "fascist," "racist," etc. get thrown around.

But I think there's a role for the word "homophobia." It captures an important motivation behind anti-homosexual behavior, specifically a feeling of aversion or disgust. These sorts of motivations can be useful if we cultivate ones that make it easier for us to act in morally right ways. Human psychology doesn't give us much room to act in a Kantian "duty for the sake of duty" fashion. We have to bridge the gap between motivational facts and justified norms by attempting to align the former with our best understanding of the latter. The word "homophobia" draws attention to the type of motivational fact typically associated with the moral norm that homosexuality is bad. It is needed because motivations and justifications often don't match up. As much as I try to develop homophobia-phobia so that my reactions will tend to be consistent with my beliefs, there is a bit of latent homophobia in my psyche that I have to be aware of.

Rickey points out that we don't talk about phobias in the case of other moral positions, e.g. decribing those who oppose alcohol as "oenophobes" and the pro-life movement as "abortophobic." But perhaps we should (as well as finding other words for when important motivational responses draw on other emotions). My stance against alcohol is a personal preference rather than a moral injunction, but it does manifest itself motivationally as a fear of or aversion toward intoxicating beverages (in terms of their effects and taste). Certainly much pro-life imagery, such as representing the fetus as a fully developed child and showing gruesome pictures of abortion procedures, seems designed to both express and foster abortophobia.

The validity of homophobia as a psychological condition is dependent on the validity of the moral arguments that would justify its effects. As Rickey suggests, it's damaging to the quality of debate to reason in the other direction -- to take the fact that someone holds anti-homosexuality views as evidence that they're simply rationalizing their homophobia. Certainly that is true of some people (and a similar situation holds for any moral stance you care to name), but we need to do our best to appeal to the normative side of a person's psyche. Talk of "homophobia" is therapeutic, not discursive, and ideally would come after the people talking have come to some agreement on the moral status of homosexuality.


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