Late last month, American news agency the Associated Press (AP) included an entry in its style guide banning use of the word “homophobia”.

In a justification for the move, AP deputy standards editor Dave Minthorn told online magazine Politico the change reflected a move towards neutrality, defining any word ending in “-phobia” as a form of mental illness, and inappropriate to social or political contexts.

Dictating language use within a given publication – style guides have power – and the AP sets the standard for journalistic language. A decision like this is a big deal for global coverage of LGBTI news.

By dictating how the media uses language, style guides play an important role in how we are informed about and understand the world. So we should care about what is a dubious justification for a dubious decision.

Just as language changes over time, words themselves are mutable. Recently we saw this in the Macquarie Dictionary’s decision to change their entry for “misogyny” following Gillard’s now famous speech. The whole affair showed we can agree to disagree as far as definitions go.

Maybe “homophobia” once meant what the AP claims, but general use shows it doesn’t anymore. The decision reflects an understanding of language as purely representational. That is, words denote given, concrete things in the world. It is only within such a framework the AP’s arguments make sense, but we know language changes over time, as does the world.

It’s hard then to see the change as anything other than explicitly political, and given the positive response from a number of anti-gay groups, perhaps it is even capitulation. This is not about free speech. “Hate speech” is rightly banned in most style guides, and I believe people should face the consequences of the words they use.

The point is, words are political and powerful, for good or bad. Whenever we advocate for or against the use of specific words, we are engaging in a political act. By erasing “homophobia” from its articles, the AP is obscuring the existence of hatred of LGBTI people and communities. It is removing a weapon from our arsenal in a war against bigotry in mainstream media that is far from over.

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