New Year’s Resolutions aren’t really my cup of tea.  It’s not that I’m practically perfect in every way, just that I prefer my resolutions to be born out of a sincere intention – like my annual Boxing Day Resolution to never eat ever again.  But just because I don’t have resolutions of my own doesn’t mean I can’t benefit from the whole resolutions fad.  So in the spirit of the Christmas season I offer you, dear reader, a pristine set of three New Year’s Resolutions that just might help to make your world a better place… for me, as a regular contributor to MercatorNet.

So, if you are one of the many people who have commented on one of my articles (or other articles, for that matter) please repeat after me:

1. “I will stop begging the question!”

Do you ever use the phrase ‘circular argument’? 
Do you know what a circular argument is? 

If you answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions, you may be qualified to use the phrase ‘begs the question’.  Congratulations!

Unfortunately, ‘begs the question’ may already be better known for its misuse than for its real meaning.  Experience suggests that most people interpret ‘begs the question’ as ‘raises the question’, ‘begs we ask the question’, or perhaps even ‘this question is right in front of me, begging to be asked!’ 

All of this begs the question: what is the correct way to use ‘begs the question’?  Except it doesn’t, and this isn’t.

The true meaning of ‘begs the question’ is complicated and counter-intuitive.  It is essentially a fancy way of saying: “your argument depends upon assumptions that you are yet to prove”.  Most of us have no need to even know the phrase ‘begs the question’, let alone use it in everyday conversation.  It’s as though half the population thought the word ‘calculus’ was an adjective to describe a cold and calculating individual ‘He’s just so calculus!’ Or that ‘ingratiating’ meant ungrateful.  Or that ‘irregardless’ is a word.

Of course, all of this does in fact beg the question… because I have neglected to demonstrate my underlying assumption that language use should follow its true meaning, and not let the meaning change according to popular use.

2. “I will reject homophobia!”

The problems with ‘homophobia’ are many and varied.  Firstly, the word doesn’t make sense: ‘homo’ comes from the Greek for ‘same’, and ‘phobia’ of course comes from the Greek for ‘fear’.  Homophobia, then, ought to be the crippling fear of sameness, at least in Greece. 

‘Homosexual-phobia’ would have slightly more relevance, except that ‘homosexual’ really just means ‘same sex’, and hence we would have ‘fear of the same sex’. 

The problem is that the original word ‘homosexual’ was just an adjective, needing to be joined to some noun like ‘attraction’ or ‘dance company’. It began its career in the early 1890s, and was condemned at the time for an unfortunate combination of Greek and Latin components:

“Homosexual’ is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it. It is, however, convenient, and now widely used.”

That’s the problem with language: convenience trumps real meaning, and before you know it people are using ‘action’ as a verb and ‘absolutely’ as an everyday expression of moderate agreement. 

If that were the only problem with ‘homophobia’ we could live with it. Absolutely.  But ‘homophobia’ (and its older cousin ‘xenophobia’) is actioned in such a way that it defies the agreed meaning of ‘phobia’.  To be blunt, people who use the word ‘homophobia’ are subverting the language of psychopathology to accuse others of having a mental illness with extremely derogatory connotations.  It is akin to calling someone a ‘nut’, a ‘retard’, ‘psychotic’, or ‘mentally ill’ merely because you do not like their opinions.

People who are labelled ‘homophobic’ may be the most hateful, bigoted and violent criminals, or they may be reasoned and dispassionate critics of policy relating to homosexuality.  In neither case is it appropriate to label them with a phobia.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders offers a number of criteria for diagnosing specific phobias, including:

A. Marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (e.g., flying, heights, animals, receiving an injection, seeing blood). 

B. Exposure to the phobic stimulus almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack. 

C. The person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable.

D. The phobic situation(s) is avoided or else is endured with intense anxiety or distress. 

If you find someone who meets these criteria, then you may be justified in using the term ‘homophobia’.  Of course, given point C, he will probably agree with you.

3. “I will keep my inner troll on a tight leash!”

Since I started writing for MercatorNet a surprising number of people have said ‘Zac, I read your latest article… the comments were really interesting!’

Never one to be damned by faint praise, I heartily attest that my commenters are among the best I’ve seen in the vast expanses of these interwebs.  But elsewhere the sad reality of online comments stands in vicious testimony to the profound ugliness of human beings. All of which raises the question: why are online comments so often so horrible?  What is it about the online medium that brings out our inner trolls?

In keeping with our linguistic theme, we must note that half the problem is verbal.  The written word is ambiguous.  Text alone lacks the tonal nuance, the friendly smile, the self-effacing body language, that renders real-life human interaction comparatively easy.  This emoticon is being sarcastic, but you didn’t know that, did you? : ) 

Yet language is only half the problem.  We can blame text for being ambiguous, but who can we blame for our willingness to read the worst possible motives and meanings into this textual ambiguity? 

“In the twilight a man treads upon a rope, and mistaking it for a poisonous snake, jumps in hurry, and cries out in fear. His heart throbs quickly. But when a light is brought by a friend of his, he finds that it is not a snake but only a rope, and then all his fears vanish.”

This old Indian story is meant to depict the illusory nature of ordinary life.  It applies equally well to the illusory nature of online comments.  The first layer of illusion is when we misread or misinterpret someone else’s words.  We have all had the experience of seeing words that literally were not there, or interpreting words in a way that later proved to be false and biased. 

But all too often the words are there, the meaning is clear, and the writer is being an enormous *****.  In that case there are different illusions to worry about: the illusion that anything you write will have a meaningful influence on someone who is being an enormous *****.  The illusion that being an equally vindictive ***** in response will not harm your own character.  And the illusion that being wrong, offensive or malicious somehow counts as a victory for you or your online enemy. 

In conclusion, if just one of my readers takes this article to heart and commits to one of my three resolutions… I will be pretty disappointed.  Irregardless, I wish you all a safe and happy New Year for 2012!

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...