Monday, December 19, 2005

The problem with phobias

Peter Tatchell, writing in the Guardian today, has another one for us - "heterophobia":
"The homophobia of the ban on same-sex marriage is now compounded by the heterophobia of the ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships. It's official: one law for heterosexuals and another for lesbians and gays. Since when have two wrongs made a right?"
If memory serves, the practice of putting 'phobia' at the end of words to denote something considered a prejudice was first used by the gay rights movement. Given that homosexuals were and are used to having their sexual disposition described as pathologies of various kinds, I can hardly say I blame them for coining this very simple but effective linguistic technique. But as understandable as this might be, I thought then and still think now that the use of 'phobia' is both often inaccurate in the context in which it's used, and an attempt to close down debate and disagreement because it implicitly imputes to the 'phobe' some sort of mild mental disorder.

I say often inaccurate because negative prejudices of various kinds obviously do have a large element of fear at their base but the problem is the 'phobic' epithet limits it to that, making any further discussion virtually impossible. The fact that 'phobias' have increased exponentially in recent years makes this both more annoying and more of a problem.

Annoying (to me, anyway) in much the same way 'gate' is routinely put at the end of any kind of corruption story, regardless of how trivial. The generation that is capable of having a 'Taxigate' (it was a 'crisis' and it 'deepened' and stuff - surprised you missed it), also suffers from 'homophobia', now 'heterophobia', 'Scotophobia' (I saw Brian Wilson try this once - bizarre), 'Islamophobia', and 'Judeophobia'.

And a problem today given the increased importance of religion and religious ideas in public discourse. The idea of a prejudice as a kind of belief about, or disposition towards someone based on ignorance of the facts and/or a lack of rational reasons isn't enough in this context. The scripturalist Christian or Muslim who believes that homosexuality is wrong would be usually understood as suffering from a prejudice in the sense described above. The problem is, they would understand those of us who disagree with them in exactly the same way - it is we who lack the facts, specifically the facts about declared will of God as found in the Bible or the Koran or whatever.

And it's no use saying religion has no rational foundation and therefore anything flowing from is is likewise irrational because it ignores both the large degree of irrationality involved in the ends people choose for themselves, and even where one end can be declared more or less completely irrational, the ends by which one gets there can nevertheless be rational. If fundamentalist Christians, for example, understands their right-standing with God to be dependent in part on cleaving to the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, it makes sense for them to take on board the conservative view of sexual relationships that one finds within its texts. The fact that the end he has chosen isn't rational to most isn't the point; it is not tolerable in a liberal polity to insist that everyone should be prepared to dismantle their own belief system in order to accommodate what is considered rational.

However, neither is it reasonable to attribute rational criticism of a belief system to prejudice. Polly Toynbee made an impressive showing in some event called 'Islamophobe of the Year Awards' for, I'd imagine, a number of her columns that have been very critical of Islam. 'Islamophobe' implies that one is hostile to Islam in particular and that one's opposition is based on prejudice and fear. Now, the first one is unfair because Ms Toynbee's hostility to religion and the religious has always struck me as a rather equal opportunities affair - as her recent rantings about the Narnia film demonstrate. While I too am strongly secular, I don't agree with her harsh line on religion but I would not be engaging with the argument to put this down to prejudice on her part. Not that she's above imputing irrationality to those who disagree with her views on marriage, children and the family - and that's rather the point: has political discourse got to the stage where the one who makes the most convincing 'phobia' argument wins?

Peter Tatchell effectively accuses anyone who disagrees with his view of marriage of suffering from a phobia; those ultra-conservative Muslims who take the view that his sexual disposition is an abomination for which he should be physically punished complain that Tatchell in taking exception to their spiritual characterisation of him, is 'Islamophobic' for doing so.

Oh, and better mention that some fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews share the views of some Muslims on this, in case I'm accused of being Islamophobic.

And I should point out that I don't agree with them about this - wouldn't want to be seen as a homophobe.

It's all getting a bit silly, in other words. Although the great 'phobia' inflation does represent a real general increase in the level of fear - of having a conversation as much as anything else. What's that all about?

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