Thursday, 28 May 2009

Homophobia: A question of definition and a clash of ethics

In my last post, I considered Ruth Gledhill’s statement that “advances in education mean that young people coming out of schools today find opposition to homosexuality in the churches incredible.” I guessed that she meant that “they are basically being taught that opposition to homosexuality in the churches is wrong.” She confirmed this, and added “More precisely, they are being taught that homophobia is wrong. And I consider that an advance.”

I want to think particularly about the statement “homophobia is wrong” and about the matter of teaching that homophobia is wrong. In search of a definition of homophobia, I turned to my copy of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary (New Edition, 1983) but searched for the word in vain. A quick look on the internet revealed that the word probably first appeared in the early 1970s, and was used by George Weinberg to mean “the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.” In other words, it was a psychological condition - akin to agoraphobia or arachnophobia. But the word has clearly evolved, for Ruth Gledhill presumably does not mean to say that it is ethically wrong to have a certain psychological condition.

Wikipedia offered several definitions, but my trust in Chambers is so total, that I checked their online 21st Century Dictionary to find that homophobia is “a strong aversion to or hatred of homosexuals.” And that does indeed seem to be the way that the word is normally used. To describe hatred of (or even aversion to) a certain class of people as wrong is pretty reasonable.

Hence, one would assume that Ruth Gledhill is operating on the same definition of homophobia as me. But it’s not quite that simple. In her article, it is fairly clear that she is criticising people on the basis of the fact that they believe homosexual activity is wrong. She apparently believes that people who view homosexual activity as wrong are homophobic. They may have homosexual friends, they may be of homosexual orientation themselves, but if they believe that homosexual activity is wrong, they are homophobic.

In other words, we have a clash of ethics. Some people believe that homosexual activity is unethical, while others believe that it is unethical to maintain that homosexual activity is unethical. (And of course there is a third group that believes that neither is unethical.)

Which brings us to the matter of education and indoctrination. It is one thing to believe that something is unethical. It is another to believe that schools should teach your ethical values. Ruth Gledhill is pleased that her ethical values are apparently being taught in schools. However, they are not being taught in all schools. I’m pretty sure that there are many private and church schools where they are not taught, so I presume that she is thinking primarily of state schools. Why are these values taught in state schools? Not because all teachers in state schools hold to them - many do not - but because the state decrees it.

And so we have a political question: “Is it the responsibility of the state to insist that certain ethical values are taught to pupils in state schools?” The answer one gives will inevitably depend on one’s political philosophy. Some people would want the state to teach their ethical values. The libertarian answer, however, is that it is not the place of the state to seek to enforce morality, or to propagate a particular ethical code. It is the responsibility of parents - not the state - to choose the ethical code that children are brought up with. Libertarians have a fairly wide range of ethical codes. But they are united in believing that it is not the place of the state to force their ethical values on other people’s children.

Those who reject libertarianism may be happy when the state is pushing their own values. But when the state changes its mind, and they find that children are being indoctrinated with values they do not share, it’s usually a very different story.

So how do we avoid the clash of ethics? Choose freedom.


Greg said...

"Those who reject libertarianism may be happy when the state is pushing their own values. But when the state changes its mind, and they find that children are being indoctrinated with values they do not share, it’s usually a very different story."

Absolutely correct! Point in case, California Prop 8.

May I recommend this article for a somewhat related discussion on marriage, and how freedom is the solution there as well?

patently said...

“Is it the responsibility of the state to insist that certain ethical values are taught to pupils in state schools?”Probably, yes. And it is certainly arguable that it should, subject to a debate as to precisely what ethical values are taught. Define a narrow enough set (such as a libertarian set of ethics) and you would probably have a consensus (a) that they should be taught and that (b) schools are the most efficient way of doing so. Probably.

But that does not address the issue around homophobia. Even if you accept that the State should teach ethics to children, you should seek to define what set of ethics is to be taught. Hence, each ethic within the set should itself be definable, which is not the case for homophobia. This term is a classic example of neo-Orwellian linguistic corruption by the left.

I actually trained in experimental psychology; from this I can tell you that a phobia is a medical term to indicate an irrational fear or dislike. I can therefore say with utter confidence that I am not homophobic; I do not fear homosexuals, and my dislike of their activity is perfectly rational.

However, the common usage of "homophobia" does not accord to the correct medical definition. This is the first manner in which the language has been corrupted; the medical terminology has been parasitised in order to lend an air of validity to the term. In fact, in common usage the term has a meaning closer that that which you offer, i.e. a more generalised dislike; ranging from mere disapproval to wholesale hatred enforced by violence. And there lies the second corruption; by creating a quasi-scientific term that includes, at one end, activities that are clearly unacceptable, the left succeeds in casting a shadow over a perfectly reasonable belief. In essence, because I disapprove of two men having sex with each other, I am apparently on the same spectrum as a gay basher and therefore implicitly approve of or condone violence against them (which, for the record, I do not).

Then, finally, the last corruption is to blur the distinction between the sinner and the sin. The term “homophobia” is so ill defined that it is applied without distinction to a dislike of the actual act of gay sex, a dislike of those who engage in gay sex, or the opinion that gay sex is an immoral act. In that way, efforts to proscribe “homophobia” can be justified on the grounds that to hospitalise someone or sack them because they engage in gay sex is clearly wrong (which it is), but can then be used to dictate that people may not hold a specific ethical opinion. And so, in the name of preventing violent thuggery, we bear down on a religious man who would never dream of such.

This is the end result of the contortion of language in this way. And this is why it is wrong for our State to teach that “homophobia” is wrong.

Young Mr. Brown said...

I agree completely with most of what you say, Mr. P.

However, I still have a feeling that the ethical values taught in a state school should be determined by the school rather than the state. (I would envision that in practice the decision on what those values are, would be taken by the head teacher, or the parents, or the board of governors, or some combination thereof.)

Albert said...

Part of the problem is the difficulty of secular discourse to speak meaningfully of any sort of ethics. If everything is reduced to science, then necessarily values and morality are excluded before we even begin.

I recall Bertrand Russell being asked in 1947 if he would condemn the holocaust as absolutely wrong. He replied that he would like to, but observed that his (atheistic) philosophy wouldn't allow it. Absolute moral values simply had no category in his worldview, which excluded anything metaphysical or scientifically unverifiable.

The result is that ethics become simply a matter of taste, and ethical claims by Governments or schools are sometimes indistinguishable from power bids, which are then (paradoxically) imposed on the pretext of being more moral than those who disagree.

Patently is correct in pointing out the difference between hatred of homosexuals per se (which is plainly wrong) and an ethical belief that gay sex is wrong. The Catholic Church teaches gay sex is wrong for the same reason that it teaches artificial contraception is wrong, but no-one ever accuses Catholics of having an irrational phobia of heterosexual couples who use artificial contraception.

A further problem is perhaps that homosexuals sometimes define themselves (or are defined by others) according to their sexuality. So to claim gay sex is wrong sounds like an attack on the whole homosexual person.

Incidentally, literally the word "homophobia" means "fear of the same" which is a pretty irrational fear!

Anonymous said...

This is a very good essay; thoughtful, articulate, well reasoned. As you point out, the word "homophobic" is much overused and misapplied. A phobia is indeed a mental illness and those who disagree with the homosexual lifestyle are not necessarily suffering from a psychological disorder. I think those who look down upon gays should, instead, be regarded as biased or prejudiced. The point is that gays are still regarded by many as second-class citizens - or worse. This is the subject matter of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external stuggles as he battles for acceptance. You can learn more about the book at

Mark Zamen, author

Albert said...

Steinbeck, interesting post. I was just wondering what you meant by "I think those who look down upon gays should, instead, be regarded as biased or prejudiced." As it reads, I agree, but I wonder if you mean "Those who regard homosexual activity as immoral should be regarded as biased or prejudiced." And if the latter describes your position why do you think that? and how are you distinguishing between "biased" and "prejudiced"?

JonnyN said...

I suspect it is not quite as easy as choosing freedom, at least in the sense of not promoting ethical codes in schools. Ethical judgements underpin a school's disciplinary code for example, and are implicit in some of what is learned. It is possible to say that schools should choose to promote a minimal generally accepted set of ethics, but then where should the threshold be for inclusion in this set?

This problem is avoided if school choice is adopted, as the school then teaches whichever ethics it wants to and parents are free to choose a school according to their own ethical beliefs.

Albert said...

JN Quite, and I don't think the idea that morality can be restricted to the purely private domain is consistent with Christian teaching.

I think your suggestion is a good one, but there are still problems: it wouldn't be right for schools to teach just any moral framework - e.g. an anti-semitic one. Consequently, there would still need to be a wider moral framework within which the school would have freedom. The problem then is, who decides what goes into that wider framework?

Part of a solution to this would be proper public discussion about sexual morality. Unfortunately, those in power do not wish to allow discussion on the question - presumably because they know their arguments will not stand the weight they put on them. Instead they impose the doctrine by force, on the pretext of tolerance.

Pierre Coupet-Virtual Organization Management Institute said...

Awesome article

Anonymous said...

So just wondering, but... it seems to be schools already do impart ethical values. In fact, I'm pretty sure thats part of thier job description; the socialize student with current social norms. So, if its so wrong for schools to teach ethics on homosexuality, should they also stop teaching that racism and misogyny is wrong?

Also, just so you guys know, another term has risen as opposed to homophobia; "heterosexism." Which i think is a lot more accurate.