False phobias and the ism schism

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The Independent Online
Today I am very pleased to have with me Professor Gosling, the newly appointed Reader in Political Correctness at the University of Milton Keynes, who has agreed to answer your questions on sexism, ageism, racism, feminism, and all the other -isms so fashionable today. Take it away, Prof!

Dear Professor Gosling, I am puzzled by the attitude of Michael Portillo and the Ministry of Defence to minorities in the armed forces.

Mr Portillo wants to maintain the ban on homosexuals on the services because, he says, the groundswell of opinion among serving personnel is anti-gay and therefore should be taken notice of. Fine. But a new report just out says there is similar prejudice against racial minorities in the forces, and that racism is widespread not just among the ranks but the officers as well. The MoD says it is well aware of this and desperately wants to reduce racism in the forces.

But what if Mr Portillo turns round and uses the same arguments in favour of racism as he did in favour of a gay ban? What if Mr Portillo says that racism is right because most people practise it? How can it be right to have homophobia in the services and not racism? How can Mr Portillo argue against racism and for a gay ban?

Professor Gosling writes: You've got a rather good point there. I had not thought of that.

Dear Professor Gosling, Wouldn't the political correctness boys (and girls) have a better chance of getting their case across if they were more literate about it?

Take the word "homophobia", which has been coined to describe anti-gay prejudice. It sounds as if it means "fear of homos" but it does not mean that at all. "Homo" is the Greek word for "the same" ("homosexual" means "of the same sex"), so all that "homophobia" means is "fear of people who are the same as you" - which is the exact opposite of what you political correctness girls (and boys) want it to mean! What happens, for instance, if there genuinely does turn out to be a condition involving fear and distrust of people who are the same as you? What would you call it then, eh? Well?

Professor Gosling writes: That's a very good point. I wish I had thought of it first.

Dear Professor Gosling, I think there is one aspect of political correctness which has never been aired properly, and that is the role of the suffix -ism.

As far as I can see, the overtones of this suffix have changed radically in the past 40 or 50 years, and no one has picked up on this. In the old days, an -ism was something you believed in. You believed in Communism, you believed in Fabianism, you believed in Cubism, you believed in Socialism and indeed in Tony Benn's case you still do. In fact, even in the case of Fascism, you believed in it if you were a Fascist.

All that has changed now. An -ism is something to be feared and hated and reviled. Racism and ageism and sexism are all bad. If you want to put something in a bad light you put -ism on the end and call it short- termism or sizeism, and everyone knows that it is meant to be bad.

Now, I suggest that this lands us in some problems. It means, for a start, that any movement started today that wants to be respected and taken seriously is taking a risk if it calls itself an -ism. Even feminism must have this problem. I wager there are many people going round today who think that "feminist" is an insult, meaning "unfair to women".

It means that the word "Fascist" is now always used as an insult and never - more usefully - as a defining adjective applied to a person with Fascist views.

It means that people who try to use -ism words in an accurate, non-coloured sense - as when you call someone a monetarist or ideologist - always sound as if they are uttering insults or being very defensive. Republicanism, for instance, used to refer simply to people who thought that a republic was the best form of government. It is beginning to be taken to refer to a bunch of Irish bombers.

Given that all this is so, would it not be best to abandon all words ending with -ism and start again?

Professor Gosling writes: Oh God, you may be right. I wish I'd never got into this whole wretched business now.

Professor Gosling will be back here soon. And there again, she may not.

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