It is easy enough to criticize the postmodern approaches that have become orthodoxy in humanities departments over the last couple of decades, but if postmodernism has taught us anything of value, it is that we are prisoners of our language.  The words we use constrain the expression of our thoughts.  Since postmodern academics tend to be on the left or far left, they generally ignore what is probably the best single example of this phenomenon—namely, the changes in the English language that make it all but impossible to challenge the most extreme claims made for the legal and social status of homosexuality.  Supporters of “gay rights” have won, are winning, and will continue to win, and their victory can be epitomized by the brilliant success of one word: “homophobia.”

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example, one that may not be hypothetical for much longer.  A state plans a sweeping package of gay-rights legislation, which would establish domestic-partner benefits; make civil unions equal to heterosexual marriages; permit gay adoptions; and vastly expand hate-crimes law to penalize any demonstration, remark, or writing deemed hostile to homosexual behavior.  The community is divided.  One activist—call him John—believes the measures are worthwhile and long overdue.  Another, David, has a much more ambiguous response.  Believing as he does in “live and let live,” he does not want to see private homosexual conduct regulated and thinks workplace discrimination is unacceptable.  Still, he is worried that the new laws will suppress free speech, and his religious beliefs do not allow him to see homosexual “marriage” as comparable, in any way to heterosexual.  David is anything but an extremist, he just thinks these laws go too far.

How would these divergent views be characterized in the media?  John represents “tolerance.”  He is liberal, “gay-friendly,” and these terms have highly positive connotations.  But what is David?  He is “anti-gay,” intolerant, hateful, and, above all, “homophobic.”  Taken literally, this last word is virtually meaningless.  As remarkably few people seem to know, “homophobic” simply means “fear of the same,” and logically, it should perhaps be a term for people who favor change of any sort.  Of course, it means far more in modern parlance.  It means someone who is afraid of homosexuals and homosexuality.

But why should anyone fear homosexuality?  A generation of post-Kinsey scholars has told us that to oppose any aspect of homosexuality—any legal or social change whatsoever—signifies fear, the fear that comes from denying your own inner sexual turmoil.  To be homophobic, therefore, is to be a self-hating, self-denying homosexual.  Didn’t you see American Beauty?  Anyone familiar with modern psychology realizes immediately that the vociferously anti-queer Col. Frank Fitts is going to turn out to be a closet case, and a violent one at that.  Why else would anyone criticize homosexuals?

Homophobia, put simply, is bad news.  It is, above all, a pathology, and who wants to be pathological?  Who wants to be a hater?

In no other area of political life can one side of a debate not advance its views without being instantly condemned by a label.  Although the media are almost universally in favor of abortion rights, they concede critics of abortion the positive title of “pro-life,” and the term “anti-feminist” is by no means entirely negative.  Reasonable people can disagree on these issues.  Even the epithet “racist” has lost much of its force through massive overuse, and anyone who throws the label around too freely invites mockery.  Yet “homophobic” is still a knockdown, a killer word.

Though I spoke of the tyranny of language as a postmodern concept, it does have older antecedents, especially in the writings of George Orwell.  Among his other claims to fame, Orwell may have influenced the way we speak, and how we think about language, more than any English writer since Shakespeare.  More than any specific word or phrase that he coined (thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Big Brother), his greatest contribution was in conceiving the idea that shaping language made it impossible to express seditious beliefs—and perhaps even to think them.  In a Newspeak society, the word “equal” has only a scientific or mathematical sense, so that a group of cattle of the same size and weight would be described as equal; the term, however has absolutely no possible social or political connotation.  Theoretically, you could formulate the Newspeak sentence “all mans are equal,” but it is as demonstrably false as the modern statement that “all men have green hair,” and anyone who would utter such a sentence about human equality is almost certainly deranged.  Eliminate seditious thought, the leaders of Oceania believed, and society would move steadily along, untroubled by the possibility of dissidence.

Yet, for all the brilliance of his analysis, Orwell was wrong on one main thing: the notion that changing language made certain ideas forever unthinkable.  Totalitarian states are not eternal; they crumble from within.  (Just look at the former Soviet bloc.)  Even in the most unpromising circumstances, the tyranny of language can be overthrown.  We can usefully look at what the original gay-rights movement did in the 1960’s.  When stigmatized as perverts, they sabotaged that word, partly making it a joke (“Perverts Unite!”), but also explicitly challenging the label through political organization.  Today, the word “pervert” is all but extinct in serious discourse, and anyone who uses it would be, well, someone like Frank Fitts: a homophobe, a hater of himself and others.  The word “pervert” was confronted, defeated, and effectively eliminated from the English language.  This experience offers an essential lesson for anyone hoping to fight future battles over social policy.  Identify the killer words and destroy them before they destroy you.