When is it acceptable to use words like ‘homophobe’ and ‘misogynist’?
When discussing almost any issue that arises within public discourse today, secularists and atheists will often find ourselves in disagreement with our religious friends and neighbours. Some of the most frequent areas of discord arise where scripture inspires specific discriminations against particular categories of people, which may infringe their human rights. One high profile example that has been the subject of contemporary debate in many countries, is marriage equality. Of course the divisions are not always clear cut, but a reasonable approximation might place those with humanist values on the side of granting equal marriage rights to both gay and straight citizens, while the opposition to gay equality is very frequently religiously inspired.
For the non-religious among us, such discussions can be infuriating. It is one thing for people to live their lives according to Iron Age superstitions, but to seek to impose these senseless prohibitions on everyone else is entirely unacceptable. The temptation in this context is to reach for the rhetoric that is closest to hand, which is frequently to label someone as a ‘homophobe’.
I normally try to be cautious about this for a number of reasons. The first is that the word implies something about the mental disposition of another person. While I think I have sufficient information to state with confidence that gay marriage is beneficial for society, I am not qualified or competent to offer psychological diagnoses. The second reason is the principle of charity. In many cases, a person may say or do something in an unthinking manner, that they can readily admit was a mistake if it is drawn to their attention. Many expressions can also be interpreted in multiple ways and the one that first springs to a listener’s mind, may not be the one intended by the speaker. Especially when debating in 140 characters or less, I think it is worthwhile to initially give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than immediately alleging homophobia.
In a related context, I had cause to think about these issues recently when lobbying some State agencies in Ireland with regard to the public funding of chaplaincies. Every year, Irish third level colleges award €1.5M to the Roman Catholic Church for chaplaincy services, without advertisement or tender. Bishops then appoint priests to these roles and since the Roman Catholic Church excludes women from ordination, these become State funded positions that are for men only. Is this ‘misogynist’ or would it be unfair to immediately attach this label to managers within universities and colleges?
Well, firstly we can take a charitable view of what college managers did or did not know when they decided to allow public positions to be appointed at the discretion of a Roman Catholic bishop. Even with such a sympathetic approach, it is impossible to imagine that any senior manager within an Irish public body, who is responsible for dealing with a Roman Catholic bishop, could not know that such votaries claim a divine mandate to discriminate against women in ordinations. All such managers must be aware that bishops typically appoint priests as chaplains and women can’t be Roman Catholic priests, thereby discriminating against women in access to these public jobs. Even highly qualified female pastoral care workers who also happen to be devout and pious Roman Catholics, are still discriminated against based on their gender alone.
It is also pertinent to notice that the definition of the word misogynist excludes any reference to a ‘phobia’. Certainly, a person who has a hatred or a fear of women may be said to be misogynist. However, this word can also adduce mistreatment or discrimination against women based on gender alone, without any reference to the mental condition of any person. Knowingly excluding women from publicly funded jobs purely because of their gender, neatly fits this definition. Consequently, I view it as fair and reasonable to describe such approaches to appointing third level chaplains in Ireland as ‘misogynist’, even when being careful not to use that word lightly.
In general terms, I think it is prudent to be cautious about using words like ‘homophobe’ and ‘misogynist’. If overused towards ill deserving targets, they can lose their import when the power of such language is required the most. However, this does not mean that there is no such thing as homophobia or misogyny (much of which remains religiously inspired). Wherever we find it, we are not wasting our time in opposing it … and the first step towards opposing it, is to call it what it is.
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International