When I first became aware of the adult world some fifty years ago, some women had begun to denounce men as “sexist pigs.” I did not understand the new word sexist, but I did understand the old word pig, and I particularly understood that a pig was something I ought not to be. I daresay I was not alone in this way of thinking, and that a great many men who were extremely sexist by today’s standards, then set their faces against the scourge of “sexist pigs.”
They did this with the understanding that a “sexist pig” went too far, that he grossly exaggerated sexual differences, and that he did this in ways that were rude, crude, and unworthy of a gentleman. They believed that a “sexist pig” was a lout, an oaf and a cad, and that to avoid this odious epithet, they had themselves only to treat women decently.
The word racist was also new in those days. The word was invented in the ant-Nazi propaganda of the 1930s, but did not become a slur in American political invective for another twenty years. Even then, a “racist” was generally understood as a man who went too far in his answers to the race question. Just as a “sexist pig” grossly exaggerated sexual differences, a “racist pig” grossly exaggerated racial differences, and he expressed his distorted opinions with words and behaviors that were rude, crude, and sometimes violent.
To avoid the odious epithet of “racist pig,” one had, therefore, to be on guard against grotesque stereotypes, and to eschew odious expressions, insulting jokes, and active harm with either blows or taunts. Be polite to the black people pretty much summed it up. And the truth was, most Americans already were polite to black people, and therefore never supposed that the title of “racist pig” applied to themselves.
The word homophobia is of more recent vintage, but I think it is fair to say that the same idea appeared earlier under the heading of “queer bashing.” My earliest understanding of the later phrase was that it denoted the literal bashing of queers. A “queer basher” hunted down homosexual men in order to administer a literal beating. Or, at the very least, a “queer basher” went berserk if he was the object of an unwelcome homosexual advance.
When I was a youth, I was, evidently, attractive to homosexual men, and therefore was the object of several unwelcome homosexual advances. The ardency of these advances varied, but when a “no” did not suffice to rebuff the invitation, a precipitous exit did. Thus, it seemed to me that the berserk “queer bashers” went too far, and that this was obviously, and more so, the case with men who hounded homosexuals in the haunts of homosexuals.
I daresay my attitude was the norm in respectable middle-class society, circa 1970. It was generally believed that homosexuals should be left alone, so long as they did not become a nuisance, and that it was nobody’s business to peep through the windows of the artistic bachelors and athletic spinsters that lived in every town. But everyone in respectable middle-class society at the same time believed that those artistic bachelors and athletic spinsters might become a nuisance, and so was, by today’s standards, virulently “homophobic.”
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Over the course of my lifetime, the meaning of all three of these phrases has changed. A “sexist” is no longer a man who grossly exaggerates sexual differences, and moreover does this in ways that are rude, crude, and unworthy of a gentleman. He is now a man who believes, peradventure even politely expresses the belief, that sexual differences are not limited to the shape and operation of human genitalia. A “racist” is no longer a man who grossly defames Blacks, and who will harm Blacks when it is in his power to do so. He is now a man who believes, peradventure even politely expresses the belief, that racial differences are not limited to the colors of human skin. A “homophobe” is no longer a man who is so violently disgusted by homosexual acts that he hunts down homosexuals and “bashes” them. He is now a man who believes, peradventure even politely expresses the belief, that differences of sexuality are not limited to superficial variations in erotic expression.
What we learn from this is that egalitarianism is a strict and pitiless creed. It may be patient, but it becomes, over time, increasingly minute in its exactions. It begins by naming and shaming the extremists, or what I have for the sake of convenience called pigs. It begins by naming and shaming the “sexist pigs” who loudly proclaim that every woman is a ditzy broad who lacks the strength to open a jar of mayonnaise. What decent person will object to the naming and shaming of such cads?
It begins by naming and shaming the “racist pigs” who liken Blacks to monkeys and set fire to their churches in the night. What decent person will object to the naming and shaming of such louts?
It begins by naming and shaming the “homophobic pigs” who have an obsessive horror of buggery, and who feel themselves justified in “bashing” anyone they suspects of practicing it. What decent person will object to the naming and shaming of such oafs?
But we now see that egalitarianism is not satisfied with taking the heads of such cads, louts, and oafs, and that it is not satisfied with mere decency, politeness, and the steady habit of minding one’s own business in everyone else. It may begin with denunciation of the relatively small number of pigs who go too far. But it ends with denunciation of anyone who does not go far enough on the egalitarian road to perfect equality. Indeed, everyone who does not follow that road to its end, it will roundly denounce as foul pigs.