Never having been a fan of ‘political correctness’ – a euphemism for stifling free expression of honestly held, however misguided or obnoxious, opinions – I am becoming increasingly sceptical of the legitimacy of importing pseudo-medical terms into political and social debate.
It is almost unthinkingly common practice nowadays to accuse those whose views are considered abhorrent or prejudiced of being ‘phobic’ – in other words, mentally ill. A phobia is defined [Oxford Concise Dictionary] as a morbid fear or aversion: In other words, a mental or psychological glitch requiring treatment. To assert that your critics are phobic is a power-play intended to rule their views out of order, and if possible to deny them a hearing.
Some uses of the term ‘phobic’ are more plausible than others. The most successful ‘PC’ campaign to date in this area has been the claim that those who dislike homosexuals, or consider their relationships and practices sinful, are ‘homophobic’. The term was invented, or reinvented, by American psychiatrist Dr. George Weinberg, in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. In 2002 Dr Weinberg said: "Homophobia is just that: a phobia. A morbid and irrational dread which prompts irrational behaviour, flight, or the desire to destroy the stimulus for the phobia and anything reminiscent of it." Homophobic distaste, disgust, and aversion leads to the mistreatment of homosexuals by those who find them repulsive.
Until I was aged 40, all homosexual behaviour between men, even when fully consenting and in private, was a serious criminal offence. Many lives were wrecked, and suicides were common. There was vehement opposition from many church people and politicians to relaxing this cruel law. But I would not regard all even of the most vehement opponents of reform as being homophobic: some were, but others were simply sticking to their traditional principles over what they saw as a straightforward moral issue.
We have, thank goodness, moved a long way forward since then, and anti-gay prejudice, whether ‘homophobic’ or not, is no longer regarded as respectable. A good deal of the credit is due to those campaigners who have espoused and applied the doctrine of homophobia. But sometimes I think they have carried it too far. Is it really reasonable to brand religious people, whether Christian or Muslim, who sincerely believe their faith tells them that homosexuality is sinful, as homophobes? I am not convinced.
And I am totally unconvinced by the case that is nowadays vociferously being made, that there is a parallel phenomenon called ‘Islamophobia’ which leads to irrational dislike of Muslims, sometimes amounting to hatred and unfair discrimination against them.
There is really no plausible parallel between homosexuality, which is an innate psycho-emotional state of being, and adherence to religious beliefs which lay down certain tenets that the faithful are required to follow.
It may well be that, in the febrile atmosphere we have been living in since 9/11, there is mounting dislike and fear of Muslims, sometimes amounting to hatred. This should be of great concern to everyone, and all possible steps should be taken to deal with it. But branding all those who dislike Islam and its doctrines as ‘Islamophobic’ is totally misleading and muddies the waters. I believe there is only a tiny minority of people in the West who fear and dislike Muslims in a phobic way and who would wish to mistreat them because they find them unbearable as human beings. But hearty dislike, even amounting to revulsion, against some the teachings of Islam and practices such as sharia law punishments which strike many Europeans as primitive and barbaric, is not necessarily a ‘phobia’. It can pragmatically be based firmly on reasonable arguments, whether one agrees with them or not.
In a free society the right to express honestly held opinions and prejudices, even if these are deemed woundingly offensive by their targets, must be stoutly defended. Seeking to evade criticism by branding all your critics as 'phobic' and seeking legal curbs on 'hate speech' may seem a tempting tactical ploy, but it is not candid and is likely to prove counterproductive in the end. Muslims, gays, and other publicly controversial groups would be far better advised to show willingness to take on board the criticisms made of them, however wounding they feel these are, and to counter them on their lack of merit in reasoned debate instead of howling 'phobia!', 'phobia' at the moon.