From Isms to Phobias


Julia Gillard

by Deborah Cameron

The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard did not mince her words earlier this month when she said of the opposition leader Tony Abbott: “if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror”. But even as her rant was going viral, its target and his supporters were complaining about Gillard’s language. By calling Abbott a misogynist, they said, she had crossed the line dividing legitimate political criticism from gratuitous personal abuse.

One of Abbott’s colleagues called the accusation of woman-hatred ‘a vicious personal smear’, citing the definition of misogyny that appeared in the Macquarie Dictionary. The dictionary promptly announced that it was revising its entry for the word. Gillard’s outburst, the editor said, had alerted them to the fact that their definition was out of date. “Since the 1980s”, she explained, “misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism. A synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of entrenched prejudice against women rather than pathological hatred’”

It is true that misogyny has undergone what students of semantic change call weakening or ‘bleaching’. For many English-speakers now, perhaps including Julia Gillard, calling someone a misogynist is not much different from calling them a sexist. But the two terms are not exact synonyms, because sexism has also changed its meaning over time. Its original meaning—still preserved among more radical feminists—was ‘institutionalized prejudice or discrimination against women’. But in mainstream usage it soon acquired the broader meaning of ‘prejudice or discrimination based on an individual’s sex’. Men, in other words, can be victims of sexism, whereas they cannot be victims of misogyny. Maybe that’s one reason why the bleached sense of misogyny has gained ground. Since in reality, sex-based prejudice and discrimination do not impact on both sexes equally, we still need a term for those forms that are specifically directed against women.

But we might also speculate that the rise of misogyny as a catch-all term for anti-female attitudes and practices is part of a larger shift in the language we use to label prejudice and discrimination. In the 1970s and 1980s we had isms: the terms that came into general use included racism, sexism and ageism. Since the 1990s, however, newly salient forms of prejudice have tended to be labelled phobias: prejudice against gay men and lesbians is commonly called homophobia (a more recent, analogous term is transphobia, meaning prejudice against transgendered people), while prejudice against Muslims is referred to as Islamophobia.

Arguably, this labelling makes a material difference to our understanding of the phenomenon being labelled. Phobia is a clinical term for a category of pathological conditions which are characterized by obsessive anxiety. In everyday English the word is used more loosely, to mean irrational hatred or fear, but it carries over from the clinical domain its connotations of pathology or illness. The new ‘phobia’ terms thus tend to conflate institutionalized social prejudice and discrimination with personal (and pathological) feelings of hatred towards an out-group.

Of course it is true that some expressions of prejudice against homosexuality or Islam (or for that matter women, or Black people, or Jews) are fuelled by a kind and degree of hatred that might merit the description ‘pathological’. But the idea that prejudice is, by definition, an expression of irrational fear and loathing tends to focus attention on the forms that are most extreme, while distracting it from the humdrum, low-level varieties which are actually far more common than full-blown hate.

Tony Abbott’s response to Julia Gillard’s attack exhibits a strange but increasingly common kind of logic. He did not take issue with her calling him a sexist (which on the evidence of his political record he could hardly deny), but he reacted with outrage to being called a misogynist. ‘Yes, I discriminate against women, but don’t you dare suggest it’s because I hate them’—what kind of argument is that? Does an expression of prejudice or an act of discrimination become less morally culpable if it isn’t motivated by hatred? Apparently so: we’ve seen similar arguments being aired in cases where footballers have been caught using racist language. They don’t dispute that they used the words in question, but they contest the charge of racism on the grounds that their hearts and minds are free from prejudice. This could only make sense as a rhetorical move in a context where prejudice is seen as an individual pathology, and judged less by public actions than by private beliefs and feelings.

Where it is taken to mean ‘irrational/pathological fear’, applying the term phobia to institutionalized forms of prejudice becomes even more problematic, since we often think of phobias as just extreme and dysfunctional versions of ‘normal’ fears, like a fear of snakes or a fear of heights. It’s not that there’s nothing to be afraid of at all, it’s just that the phobic overreacts. This reasoning can easily be turned against the victim of prejudice, as with the so-called ‘gay panic defence’, where someone who has assaulted or even killed a gay man claims to have acted while in the grip of uncontrollable terror brought on by an unwanted homosexual advance. In this story the perpetrator of violence is as much a casualty of homophobia as the target of his attack. ‘Islamophobia’, too, suggests some mysterious visceral reaction—though there is surely little mysterious about the motives of those in the public sphere who have spent the last 10 years fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment. Those motives are political, and for their purposes, perfectly rational.

Prejudice against non-white people, or women, or queers, or Muslims, is not an individual character flaw or a form of mental illness. It is a political phenomenon, a by-product of the systemic oppression of some social groups by others. It is sometimes about hate, but it is always about power. The language in which we name it should not obscure that basic truth.

About the Author:

Deborah Cameron teaches linguistics – including grammar – at Oxford University. Her book Verbal Hygiene is published by Routledge.