‘In politics,” Coleridge wrote, “what begins in fear usually ends in folly.” In journalism, he might have added, what ends in “-phobia” usually suffers the same fate.
The Associated Press’s November announcement that it will cease conflating “phobia” and “criticism” is a welcome one, and both other news outlets and the general public would do well to follow its example. For a criminally long time now, “-phobe” has been lazily tacked on to other words without reference to its meaning or judgment about its suitability. In the dictionary of modern usage, “-phobe” is to “critic” what “-gate” is to “-scandal.” Oppose gay marriage? You’re a homophobe! Defend the Mohammed cartoonists? You’re an Islamophobe! The word joins others, such as “racist” and “misogynist,” in the twisted arsenals of those who would lob loaded terms into the field of debate in order to kill discussion.
The word “phobia” is derived from the Greek phobos, which translates literally as “panic flight,” and which medical dictionaries tend to translate more loosely as “morbid fear.” In the modern world, the term is most commonly employed by clinical psychologists as a label for a specific form of anxiety disorder in which a person experiences “excessive or unreasonable” — in other words, irrational — fear in response to a given stimulus. The most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders explains that in order for a person to be a “phobic,” “exposure to the phobic stimulus” must “almost invariably provoke an immediate anxiety response.” Among other things, this response can include loss of control, flight, fainting, and panic attacks. And the reaction can be classified as “phobic” only if “the person recognizes that the fear is excessive and unreasonable.”
Here’s the question for those who casually launch the word against their ideological opponents: Is there really no better description of democratic opposition to, say, gay marriage than “phobia”? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would certainly suggest that there is. The medical profession, too, which holds that one can diagnose a phobia only if “the anxiety, panic attack, or phobic avoidance associated with the specific object or situation are not better accounted for by another mental disorder.” It helps if those symptoms actually exist, too.
Explaining the AP’s decision, Deputy Standards Editor Dave Minthorn expressed his concern at the way in which “phobia” is being misused. “‘Homophobia’ especially — it’s just off the mark,” he observed. “It’s ascribing a mental disability to someone, and suggests a knowledge we don’t have. It seems inaccurate.” I’d go one step further than Minthorn. It doesn’t just seem inaccurate, it is inaccurate — and wildly so. Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the “phobia” tag is appealing in political discourse. By insinuating that your opponents are irrational and motivated by primal fear — mentally ill, even — you are free to discount the legitimacy of their position without actually having to debate them. After all, who would bother to argue with a madman?
At this point in any discussion about language, someone usually pops his head above the parapet and says something to the effect of, “Calm down, language changes, and besides, it’s all about communication anyway.” This is true, and far be it for me to discourage lingua Anglica’s virtuous flexibility. But my complaint here is not so much about the changes in words’ meaning and use as it is about language that exists simultaneously in two states. “Phobia” has a clinical definition that is universally understood. It also has a colloquial — primarily political — usage that is not. The trouble is that the two uses do not coexist in separate, hermetically sealed arenas. The colloquial use has not become wholly divorced from the original use.
For Dave Minthorn, this is problematic because it results in copy that is “not quite accurate.” It’s a little more serious that that. We cannot have fruitful political discussions if we don’t know what we’re talking about or if we shut down our interlocutors at the first hurdle. Granted, this is a symptom as much it is a cause. But there are good reasons to remove barriers from our discourse, and I would applaud the Associated Press for recognizing that “phobia” is often an inappropriate descriptor. Perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt got it slightly wrong. What we have to fear is less fear itself, and more the prospect of losing the ability to talk about fear.
Presumably, there are some people who are genuinely scared of homosexuals. After all, there are people who are irrationally terrified — phobic, if you will — of garden spiders (arachnophobes), of string (cnidophobes), of chins (geniophobes), of stars (siderophobes), and of everything (panophobes). But homophobia is not a condition that afflicts many — certainly not all of the 44 percent of Americans who oppose gay marriage. As strongly as gay-marriage supporters (and they make up nearly half the population) might feel about the issue, it helps nobody for them to pretend that their fellow citizens are clinically ill.
“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” adding, “It is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.” In our diffuse and noisy modern world, Orwell’s “we” is made up of billions of autonomous people each jostling for his say, and the temptation is to fall in line and contentedly reassemble those “strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else.” Congratulations to the Associated Press for having the courage to reject this pernicious tendency and demand that if language is to have any purpose at all, it should actually mean something.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.