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Disputed terminology

June 10th, 2004

Via Eugene Volokh, I came to this Boston Globe piece by Jeff Jacoby, who complains that the term “partial birth abortion”, when used in news stories, is normally surrounded by scare quotes, with the explanation that this term is used by opponents of abortion, but disputed by supporters. Jacoby complains about liberal bias here and says, among other thing “when reporting on the same-sex marriage controversy, they should observe that “what critics call ‘homophobia’ — a term promoted by gay and lesbian activists — is not recognized by medical authorities”

As far as I can recall, I’ve never seen the word “homophobia” used in a news story in a major newspaper, other than in quotes, usually direct, but occasionally indirect (“activist X is concerned about homophobia”) Certainly I’ve never seen it used as if it referred to a recognised medical condition analogous to, say, claustrophobia. I looked in Google News and the recent uses I could find were all either in direct or indirect quotes, opinion pieces (including reprints of Jacoby!) or in publications such as Gay Times and Alternet, which don’t claim to be unbiased. Can anyone point to examples that would support Jacoby?

More generally, there is clearly a problem here. Almost any term can be disputed. For example, Jacoby himself objects to the term “assault weapons” as biased and anti-gun, even though a Google search for “assault rifle” produces 131 000 hits, including many which both promote assault rifles and deplore restrictions on their use[1]. As another example, I recently referred to the President of the United States of America, but almost every word in that description of George Bush could attract scare quotes from someone. It could be argued for example, that Bush wasn’t properly elected, that the US Government is illegitimate or that inhabitants of a single country have no right to claim a name properly shared between two continents.

I don’t have a good answer to this. Noting, or ignoring, disputes about terminology is one of many ways in which the media treat some viewpoints as legitimate and others as beyond the pale of debate. In the US, as the Letters Editor of the NYT observed a while back, the range of legitimate viewpoints runs the gamut from liberal to conservative. Terms will be given the scare quote treatment if either Republicans or Democrats contest them strongly enough, but not otherwise.

I will say, however, that I am less convinced than Jacoby and others of the importance of getting your terminology accepted. To the extent that “poltical correctness” was a serious movement rather than a mere bogy, its central premise was that if we could only be induced to adopt the correct language, the correct thoughts would inevitably follow. Much of the conservative reaction implicitly accepted this premise. I never saw much evidence to support it, and I’ve seen plenty of examples where terms initially used by one side have been successfully taken over by other, “capitalism” being an obvious example.

fn1. I’m more sympathetic to Jacoby’s objection to “campaign finance reform”, but a moment’s thought should have been sufficient to tell him that liberals don’t have a monopoly on tendentious use of the word “reform”. Welfare reform, anyone.

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  1. kyan gadac
    June 11th, 2004 at 01:16 | #1

    Ampersand at Alas, a Blog(Monday June 5, scroll down current blog) points out that “partial birth abortion” is in quotes because

    there is legitimate, substantial controversy over what the term “partial birth abortion” refers to. It’s appropriate for reporters to make that dissention clear, not because they are partisan, but because doing so gives readers a more accurate understanding of the issue.

    S/he points out that there are at least three distinct definitions in use in the U.S politico-legal system and in fact, the term is quoted because a judge has ruled that the definition of the term is inexact!

    I’m sure the term ‘homophobia’ has been used without quotes on numerous occasions because, as Amp says, “there is no serious controversy’ over what the term means.

  2. June 17th, 2004 at 00:12 | #2

    There’s no doubt at what the term “nigger” means, either, but you won’t see that in a news article unless it’s got scare quotes around it.

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