I remember riding my bicycle as a child once when a spider crept out from under the seat onto my leg. I noticed and cried out, swerving and braking in one violent movement. I crashed and convulsively brushed my leg where the spider had been, shuddering in panic.
Nearly two decades later I moved to an apartment near the edge of a vast, hot, humid Japanese forest. One evening after leaving my bathroom window open I found a massive black arachnid racing up the wall. I slammed the door shut and fled to the opposite end of the apartment; there I paced about in indecisive fear for long minutes, staring at the door lest the spider creep out, too revolted to approach it but knowing I absolutely had to get it out. This was a nightmarish, instinctive and deeply irrational fear. Only the terror of sharing the night with it motivated me finally to grab my hoover out and venture back in, armed thus! I sucked it into the vacuum cleaner and left the motor running for minutes until I was sure it was dead.
This pathetic arachnophobia is deeply emotional. My Japanese colleagues had already explained that the snakes and centipedes were more dangerous, yet I was thrilled by the smooth beauty of the snakes, revolted by the spiders. I had no control over my reaction to those big spiders, my fear was not just irrational but pre-rational, an emotional response that preceded any reasonable thought.
Knowing this, I puzzle over modern usage of the suffix 'phobia' to describe political or cultural bigotries.
Is homophobia a true phobia? I can't imagine that the homophobe reacts to gay people as I do to massive spiders - with sudden, immediate terror and panicked retreat. Likewise a true xenophobe should flee any room rather than share it with a foreigner, sobbing or shuddering if they were forced to actually touch one.
My time in Japan also showed me another aspect of phobia, that regular exposure to large spiders gradually desensitised me so that the fear I felt towards them lessened over time. Do xenophobes feel happier about immigrants when they start to outnumber the natives? I don't think so.
Islamophobia too seems to get worse as more Muslim migrants arrive, not better! Again I question the suffix 'phobia' here. People may indeed have a negative reaction to Islam or Muslims, but surely this is a political conviction, not the kind of helpless instant terror I feel for gigantic spiders.
Islamophobes don't behave as people suffering phobias would be expected to behave. I avoid large spiders and my first reaction is horrified flight. The recent threats by a Christian pastor in the US to burn the Quran would be like me deciding to buy a tarantula, keep it in my house for a few weeks and then publicly execute it.
Of course I won't do that! A true phobia-sufferer would avoid the object of his or her fear, not obsess about it. I know one arachnophobe who feels horror even at the sight of the printed word 'spider' - such a person would not spend hours reading blogs about dangerous spiders in the way that supposed Islamophobes read about Islamist terror on Gates of Vienna. So I suspect homophobes, xenophobes and Islamophobes don't really suffer true phobias. Bigotries, sure, but not phobias.
Middle Eastern scholar Professor Fred Halliday argued against using the phrase Islamophobia, instead suggesting 'anti-Muslimism'. This latter sits much more comfortably alongside other historical bigotries like anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism as a hatred of a people, not fear of an ideology. The word 'Islamophobia', he argued, was too easily used to silence all critical thought about Islam or interpretations of Islam.
Pondering this, I was interested to discover this article by Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, who argues that calling prejudices 'phobias' is deeply misleading for five reasons. To summarise:
1) Phobias are individual mental health problems
'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.'
2) Calling people phobic silences debate
'Today, promoting the concept of Islamophobia is about setting up Islam as a criticism-free zone.... Worse, the use of this term erodes the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people.... 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.'
3) Phobia rhetoric makes interpretation of debate subjective
'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’.'
4) Dissenting views treated as diseases
'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?'
5) 'Phobic' individuals presumed immoral
'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.'