Sunday, 5 September 2010

Of Mice and Muslims

...not to mention homosexuals and spiders.

Yes, these, and many other things, now have their very own phobias!

As anyone who has watched a Tom and Jerry cartoon will know, people who suffer from musophobia tend to jump onto a chair and scream whenever they see a mouse. People suffering from arachnophobia do the same when they see a spider.

So, do people suffering from Islamophobia or homophobia jump onto chairs and scream when they see a Muslim or a homosexual?

I had always thought of phobias as essentially irrational fears of entirely harmless things (‘fear, horror or aversion, esp. of a morbid character’, according to the OED). Being scared of a harmless house spider for example would be a phobia (arachnophobia) whereas being scared of a poisonous black widow spider would be an entirely rational reaction and, therefore, not a phobia.

Mice, small spaces and foreigners all deserve their own phobias (musophobia, claustrophobia and xenophobia) just so long as we accept that they are all harmless. But if they were not harmless - say, if the mice were plague carriers, the small space happened to be a locked and airtight container and the foreigners were enemy forces armed to the teeth with guns and grenades - then fear of them would be completely rational and would not be described as a phobia.

In fact, it seems to me that terms such as ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ are frequently applied to people who a) are not scared of homosexuals and Muslims - they don’t jump on chairs and scream - but may have reservations about their beliefs, actions or lifestyle and b) those reservations are rational - they have been ‘reasoned’ and are capable of explanation. That doesn’t mean to say that the reasons are correct or that the explanations may not be refuted, but that’s beside the point. It is my contention that if someone can supply a reasoned argument to support a criticism, it is not correct to say that they are suffering from a phobia.

All too often, describing reasoned criticism as a phobia is no more than a verbal trick to invalidate an opposing argument before it is made. If somebody puts forward a critical argument relating to some aspect of Islam, for example, it is easy to say “I don’t have to argue with you! You’re an Islamophobe!” (this requires no intellectual effort at all) whereas it may be quite hard to engage in a critical argument point by point and attempt to find flaws in it (this may require a good deal of intellectual effort).

Christopher Hitchens expressed this well in a recent article: “This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be ‘phobic’. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.”

As a means of defusing dissent by abusing your opponents, calling them a something-phobe is often a more effective tactic than it really deserves to be. So much so that lots of groups are being thrown onto the something-phobe bandwagon. Apparently there are Christianophobia, Heterophobia, Judaeophobia and other phobias too ludicrous to mention. My personal favourite, however is Luposlipaphobia, which was coined by the Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, to describe “fear of being pursued by timber wolves around a kitchen table while wearing socks on a newly waxed floor”.

Now that’s a phobia I can understand!

1 comment:

  1. excellent article. the Far Side cartoon is perfect and hilarious!