Really Bad Ideas: Phobias
There is something rotten in the trend to label political or cultural views as 'phobias' that must be treated
Today, ‘phobia’ is increasingly discussed as a transcendental force which can apparently transform people into bigots and drive them to commit acts of verbal and physical aggression. Many groups in society now claim to be the casualties of other people’s phobias, and argue that they have been victimised by a ‘phobic’ outlook. Homophobia and Islamophobia are the best known of these recently constructed conditions – but there are many more groups who use the rhetoric of phobia to define their victimised position in society. It seems a long time ago when our phobias were confined to the fear of snakes, spiders or heights. The website Phobialist has a rundown of over 500 different phobias, ranging from Didaskaleinophobia (the fear of going to school) to Xyrophobia (fear of razors) (1).
The word phobia emerged in the late eighteenth century. It was originally used to describe the fear of an imaginary evil or an overreaction to a real threat. In short, it defined a response of irrational fear or aversion to a particular object or situation. The term was absorbed into the emerging psychiatry profession around the turn of the twentieth century, and in the process it became medicalised. In more recent decades, ‘phobia’ has been used as a suffix to denote negative attitudes towards certain kinds of people. The word xenophobia (a deep antipathy to foreigners) served as a model for the expansion of phobia, and what we might call the phobic imagination, into the realm of human interaction and relationships. Over the past two decades, the use of the word phobia to denote fear or angst about other people has become part of everyday speech.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hydrophobia (literally ‘fear of water’, but also another name for rabies) was probably the model for the subsequent formation of various phobia-linked terms in the English language. There were a small number of such phobic terms in the seventeenth century, and a few more arose in the eighteenth century. But they really grew markedly in the nineteenth and then exploded in the twentieth century. The phobic imagination has risen alongside the therapeutic culture, which tends to interpret conflict and troublesome behaviour through the medium of psychology.
Today, emotional dysfunctions are said to cause social problems. From this standpoint, unprocessed and unmanaged emotions are to blame for many of the ills that afflict modern society. Even violence between nations, wars, are often said to have an emotional cause these days. The early twentieth-century word ‘xenophobia’ is no longer simply a term used to describe an individual’s view of foreigners; it has become a therapeutic diagnosis of an individual’s mindset. The various irrational fears captured by the term ‘phobia’ are now looked upon as merely a subsection of the emotional disorders that dominate everyday life. The diagnosis of phobia has become central to a therapeutic worldview that regards stress, rage, trauma, low self-esteem or addiction as dominant features of the human experience.
The construction of the term ‘homophobia’ set the path for the invention of other late twentieth-century phobias-cum-prejudices. It should be noted that until the 1960s, homophobia referred to the fear of men or aversion towards the male sex (2). According to the OED contemporary usage of the word to mean fear or prejudice against homosexuals dates from October 1969. The clinical psychologist George Weinberg, who claims to have dreamt up the term, described it in the following terms: ‘Homophobia is just that: a phobia. A morbid irrational dread which prompts irrational behaviour, flight or the desire to destroy the stimulus for the phobia and anything reminiscent of it.’ (3)
The reclassification of homophobia as an emotional disorder, an irrational fear of same-sex relationships, has paralleled a wider trend for looking upon prejudice and conflict as the outcome of an individual’s emotional deficits (4). When the European Parliament passed a resolution titled ‘Homophobia in Europe’ in January 2006, it declared that homophobia should be seen as an irrational fear of, and aversion to, homosexuality and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people based on prejudice, similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and sexism. The emphasis on the ‘irrational’ nature of homophobia is in keeping with today’s tendency to treat objectionable behaviour as a kind of personality disorder. And the diagnosis of homophobia is not confined to apparently emotionally disordered individuals; even whole nations can be found to suffer from the sickness. In April, members of the European Parliament described Poland as ‘hateful’ and ‘repulsive’ for its alleged homophobic political culture.
This successful linking of a hostile attitude towards gays with the emotional disorder that is ‘phobia’ has encouraged others to define themselves as the victims of phobia, too. The coining of the term ‘Islamophobia’ is the most successful recent attempt to customise the homophobia tag for a new group of people: Muslims. The Islamophobia tag gained currency in the 1990s. In 1996, the UK Runnymede Trust’s Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia played a key role in framing anti-Muslim prejudice as a form of irrational sentiment. By the early 2000s, and in particular after 9/11, the word started to be widely used throughout society. International institutions, including the United Nations and the EU, embraced Islamophobia as yet another prejudice that had to be condemned. Kofi Annan told a UN conference in 2004 that when the ‘world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development’. ‘Such is the case with Islamophobia’, he added (5).
Actually, the world in general rarely ‘coins a new term’. Rather, that is usually done by claims-makers and advocacy organisations pursuing their own agendas. The world did not need a ‘new term’; it could have got by well enough with already-existing phrases such as anti-Muslim or anti-Islam prejudice. However, by drawing on the successful creation of homophobia, the advocates of the new term of Islamophobia could appeal to an established consensus around identity politics and multiculturalism. Moreover, the constructers of Islamophobia, like those who rewrote the phrase homophobia, could draw on the powerful therapeutic outlook that dominates Anglo-American societies today. In our therapeutic culture, all forms of verbal conflict are interpreted as being caused by individuals who are unable to manage their own emotions inflicting emotional pain on to others.
The coining of new terms is not always a response to any rise in the threat of bigotry or discrimination. In recent times, numerous lobbyists have tried to present their groups as being the victims of some sort of phobia. So if Muslims can claim to suffer from phobia, what about Christians? Some fundamentalist Christians recently discovered the scourge of ‘Christophobia’. In a statement, they claimed that ‘Christians are being labelled, ridiculed, blamed, and legislated against’ which shows ‘there is an irrational fear and hatred of Christianity growing in all too many countries today’ (6). Reverend Tristan Emmanuel, a Canadian minister, is also worried about a rising tide of Christophobia; he believes that ‘the kind of hatred being expressed towards Christians in Canada today is probably a precursor of persecution, just as depersonalisation of Jews in Nazi Germany preceded the Holocaust’ (7).
Others have written about ‘Jew-phobia’. Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the UK Daily Mail, points to a ‘rampant Israel-phobia and Jew-hatred’. Her colleague, columnist Peter Hitchens, prefers the term ‘Judophobia’, though he acknowledges that he uses the term to annoy people who classify others as suffering from ‘homophobia’ or ‘xenophobia’ (8). It is striking that there has been a shift from an ‘ism’ – anti-Semitism – to a phobia: Judophobia. Some in Europe are now challenged over their ‘Europhobia’ – that is, their political opposition to joining the EU or adopting the Euro currency. It seems that even the EU can be presented as the poor little victim of irrational fears and prejudices on the part of its detractors. In other words, anyone who is deeply sceptical of the EU must surely be driven by irrational fears.
More than a self-serving idiom
The trend for describing political and cultural attitudes as ‘phobias’ is more than simply a symptom of intellectual poverty. Through the prism of phobia, issues of public life are reduced to being psychological problems on the part of individuals. There are five very important reasons why we should reject the rise of this language of phobias.
-- First, and most importantly, it reduces attitudes that are actually shaped by social and cultural factors to problems of individual psychology. According to the therapeutic worldview, power relations and cultural and social conflicts play only a marginal role compared with the impact that the phobic individual apparently has. In this vein, Martin Kantor’s Homophobia: Description, Development and Dynamics of Gay Bashing actually pathologises the phobic individual. In earlier times, homosexuality was pathologised as a form of psychiatric disorder, and the early advocates of gay liberation argued vociferously against the medicalisation of homosexuality. Today the situation has been reversed: the proponents of the term homophobia, who are often gay rights activists, now explicitly medicalise their foes. For Kantor, homophobia is the outcome of emotional disorders – he claims it is linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, mood disorder, phobic/avoidant disorders and a variety of other personality disorders. Evidently, homophobes are deeply disturbed and sick people. Of course, there are prejudiced people out there - people who are mistrustful and scathing of homosexuals, Muslims, blacks and others - but such prejudice does not represent a mental health issue.
-- Second, the labelling of someone’s speech, attitude or behaviour as a phobia closes down discussion. When someone is diagnosed as phobic, then they are seen as being beyond the reach of reason or open debate. As the British writer Kenan Malik has argued, in relation to what he calls the ‘Islamophobia myth’, the word Islamophobia ‘has become not just a description of anti-Muslim prejudice but also a prescription for what may or may not be said about Islam’ (9). In recent years the term Islamophobia has been frequently invoked to silence criticism of Islam. Criticisms of any aspect of Islam are looked upon as expressions of a new form of racism. In reality, critics of Islam are questioning the values associated with the religion rather than the racial status of Muslim people. Today, promoting the concept of Islamophobia is about setting up Islam as a criticism-free zone.
Recent claims about an ‘epidemic of Islamophobia’ are based on very impressionistic and subjective methodology. The Runnymede Trust Report is underwritten by comments made by interested parties and young Muslims. The impressions of this self-selected group of individuals were then recycled as ‘facts’ throughout the report. The report also says that opinions which are critical of Islam, and which in an open democratic culture would be the subject of a legitimate debate, are actually ‘closed views of Islam’ and thus on a par with ‘Islamophobia’. Those who claim that Islam is unresponsive to new realities, or is sexist, irrational and in some ways a political ideology, are denounced as Islamophobic by the report. Virtually any criticism of Islam can now be interpreted as ‘Islamophobia’. Worse, the use of this term erodes the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people. Apparently both a secular critique of Islam and prejudiced behaviour against Muslims are now seen as products of the same Islamophobia.
In today’s phobic imagination, it seems people are not allowed to have negative or hostile views of other people’s lifestyles or cultures. The term phobia implies that if you dislike a certain lifestyle then you must be an irrational bigot. In such circumstances, criticising a way of life or a religion becomes an act akin to sacrilege. Free speech and open debate are regarded as luxuries in a world where giving offence is seen as an unpardonable sin.
-- Third, the promotion of phobias endows prejudices with a subjective and arbitrary character. It is not what you say or what you mean that counts but how your speech or thought is diagnosed. The diagnosis of phobia is highly subjective: it involves interpreting, or guessing at, someone’s real motives. And once you have been diagnosed in this way, it can be very hard to argue against it.
Consider the Runnymede Trust’s claim that Islamophobia is widespread in the UK. One of the advocates of this view, Dr Abduljalil Sajid, said Britain was ‘institutionally Islamophobic’ (10). The term institutional Islamophobia is significant: it self-consciously copies the term ‘institutional racism’, which was invented by the 1999 Macpherson report into the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. In line with the current trend for psychologising every human experience, racism has been recast as a semi-conscious psychological process. Thus, the influential Macpherson report helped to codify feelings and emotion into law. Macpherson defined institutional racism as a problem of the mind, arguing that it ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The key word here is ‘unwitting’: an unconscious response driven by unregulated and untamed emotions. In a world where ‘unwitting racism’ replaces real racism, every act has the potential to be diagnosed as prejudicial or ‘phobic’.
-- Fourth, the tendency to label opponents with a diagnosis that is derived from psychiatry ends up diseasing disagreement and dissent. The authoritarian implications of doing this were clearly demonstrated in Stalinist Russia where dissidents were often incarcerated in mental health institutions. In Western societies, phobic individuals are not incarcerated – they simply face being stigmatised and pushed out of polite society. But how long before ‘unwitting’ phobics are encouraged to participate in anger management classes or pressurised to have their ‘awareness’ raised and remoulded?
-- Fifth, although the term phobia reduces human behaviour to a medical form, it is more than a diagnosis: it is also a statement of moral condemnation. The homophobe or the Islamophobe is a sick individual whose arguments and beliefs need not be taken seriously. As unwitting phobics, they cannot help but behave the way they do. They are clearly morally inferior individuals who lack the emotional resources necessary to partake in contemporary society.
The psychological turn in public life does little to protect people who really are the targets of bigotry and prejudice. Treating bigotry as a disease simply trivialises conflict. It also discourages people from saying what’s on their mind, and participating in an open-ended debate.
(1) See the Phobialist website
(2) See Oxford English Dictionary
(3) See Geroge Weinberg, Love is Conspiratorial, deviant & magical
(4) This point is developed in chapters 1 and 3 in Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Anxious Age, Routledge, 2004
(5) See United Nations Press Release, ‘Secretary General: Addressing headquarters seminar on confronting Islamophobia’
(6) See Frontline Fellowship: Christophobia
(7) See Media ‘Christophobia’ is destroying democracy
(8) See Peter Hitchens, ‘Israel is our front line whether we like it or not’, Mail on Sunday, 26 July 2007
(9) Kenan Malik, The Islamophobia Myth
(10) See ‘Islamophia pervades UK – report’, BBC News, 2 June, 2004
published by spiked, 21 May 2007