Noon, on a dirt track in Helmand province, Afghanistan. A soldier sees something on the ground and kneels down for closer inspection. Mercifully, it is not an explosive device but a spider. The soldier screams and jumps back, despite it not being poisonous. If you saw this you would likely conclude that he has arachnophobia. A reporter would say the same. Though not a psychiatrist, you would deem yourself fit to label the soldier thus. But the world-famous news agency Associated Press (AP) yesterday deemed the attributing of other phobias – in particular homophobia and Islamophobia – inappropriate. Their new style guide warns reporters against using phobic terms in "political or social contexts".
The AP's deputy standards editor Dave Minthorn explained:
"Homophobia especially – it's just off the mark. It's ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge that we don't have. It seems inaccurate. Instead, we would use something more neutral: anti-gay, or some such … We want to be precise and accurate and neutral in our phrasing."It is commendable to strive for accurate, neutral reporting and "homophobia" or "Islamophobia" are not ideal, as they denote solely the fear motivating prejudice. But they are the best we have. While fear may not be the only force behind such attitudes, it is invariably a chief component. AP's assertion that these words are inaccurate isn't remotely neutral or precise; it reveals a banquet of their own assumptions about what governs prejudice. It illustrates the chasm of understanding between an onlooker struggling to read a situation and a victim who, through jabbing repetition, comprehends it only too well.
can we suggest a new term?