A ‘phobia’ is an irrational fear. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘phobia’ also uses the adjectives ‘obsessive’ and ‘morbid’ to modify the fear in question. The term derives from the Greek noun φόβος (phobos) meaning fear, terror, fright, or dismay. The term occurs in well-known compounds, most of which include another noun of Greek derivation: agoraphobia (fear of public spaces), arachnophobia (fear of arachnids or spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), and so forth.
The term, phobia, is used somewhat loosely, in that it traditionally has covered everything from mild discomfort to paralyzing, debilitating terror. Acrophobia might be evidenced by a distaste for climbing on a roof, sweating palms from watching The Eiger Sanction, or a complete inability to step from an elevator onto the viewing deck of the Empire State Building or to cross a high bridge. Claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) might render a person unable to fly on airplanes or merely reluctant to enter an elevator.
As the severity of the fear differs, so methods of treating it can differ. A mild fear or distaste might be overcome by deliberate and gradual acclimation: by, for example, climbing a ladder repeatedly and by gradually climbing it higher. Treating more severe phobias might require extensive talk therapy, or the combination of mild sedatives with gradual acclimation, or total avoidance in the most severe cases.
The word ‘phobia’ in recent decades has begun to appear in other compounds in which it does not primarily refer to an irrational fear but rather to hatred, disapproval, or dislike. The two most common instances of this newer usage are probably ‘Islamophobia’ (hatred of Islam or Muslims) and ‘homophobia’ (hatred of homosexuals or homosexuality). These newer uses, unfortunately, confuse and conflate meanings and, therefore, make the language less clear.
It is true that, as is often the case with word usage, there are overlaps in meaning between real phobias and the new meanings. A person can suffer from an irrational fear of snakes, say, and also intensely dislike snakes. Likewise, a person might suffer from an irrational and paralyzing fear of all snakes, while others are reasonably and sensibly cautious around poisonous or unknown snakes. The key adjective in the definition of a phobia is ‘irrational’. Most phobias involve situations or things that can objectively be dangerous and should reasonably be approached with at least a modicum of care. Rational caution can shade into irrational fear and obsessive paralysis. Reasonable care exists along a spectrum with excessive and very excessive care. Given the gradations possible, some people might apply the term ‘phobia’ where others would not use it.
Despite admitting a degree of subjectivity made possible by such gradations, the importance of the irrational in the definition of phobias usually allows for judgements that exclude as inappropriate many uses of ‘phobia’. For example, I dislike cilantro. I find the taste of cilantro unpleasant and metallic. This dislike is not a fear. It is a distaste. I try to avoid cilantro. But I do not think cilantro is going to poison me, my palms do not sweat when I think about it, and the possibility of its mistaken inclusion in a dish does not prevent me from entering or ordering in a Cuban or Indian restaurant.
Likewise, I hate as evil the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century: Marxist-Leninism and the Nazi ideology were murderous and based on false and distorted beliefs about history, class, race, and nationality. If I were living in 1938, I also would indeed fear these ideologies. In 1938 such fear would not have been a phobia because it would have been entirely understandable, reasonable, and appropriate. Reasonable fear and caution are appropriate when dealing with things that are objectively and actually dangerous. One should be careful around cobras, table saws, and aggressive totalitarians. No phobia is necessarily present in cases of such caution because the exhibited fear is not irrational but reasonable and appropriate. Similarly, hatred of totalitarian ideology is not a phobia, because such hatred is an appropriate response to rational evaluation of the objective quality of the phenomena in question.
Since phobias involve unreasonable fear, the nature of the fear also is key to determining the presence of a phobia. In the previous example of cilantro, mere distaste has already been distinguished from fear (and therefore from phobia as a kind of fear). Distaste can combine with some degree of fear, as is often the case with distaste for snakes, spiders, and mushrooms, but also can exist without any fear. Likewise hatred can combine with some degree of fear, with both being in some cases justifiable and reasonable. Reasonableness and unreasonableness are the key factors in deciding whether or not a phobia is present.
In addition to its distinction from distaste and fear, phobias also can and should be distinguished from disapproval. I disapprove of casual use of ‘the F bomb’, of drivers who fail to signal turns, and of extramarital sex. I do not fear these things irrationally or even at all – but I disapprove of them. This disapproval might involve an element of distaste, but distaste is neither the defining nor a necessary element in disapproval. The distinctive and necessary element that defines disapproval, as opposed to, say, a dislike or distaste, is moral evaluation. Disapproval implies either a tacit or an explicit negative moral evaluation. To use ‘phobia’ for cases of disapproval is to confuse a psychological category and emotion (phobic fear) with a moral and intellectual category (disapproval).
This emphasis on moral judgement, one should add, does not require that one agree with the judgement, evaluation, or act of disapproval in question. A person might, for example, find little wrong with extramarital sex without concluding that those who disapprove of it are irrational or emotional or ‘phobic’. A person might reasonably disapprove of extramarital sex, for example, as harmful to family life and marital stability. Others might disagree with such reasons and think that the disapproval is mistaken. We can approve of things that others disapprove of without thinking that the disagreement implies an irrational fear or an emotional defect. Disagreement and disapproval do not necessarily imply hatred or fear.
The paragraphs above consider briefly a variety of phenomena and attitudes: irrational fear (phobia), rational fear, distaste, hatred, and disapproval. To press a single word into service to cover all of the distinctions just drawn confuses and debases the language. The use of ‘phobia’ to cover all of these phenomena blurs useful distinctions. In particular, the misuse of ‘phobia’ destroys its distinctive traditional sense which has filled a useful niche. Careful speakers and writers should stick to their guns: a phobia is an unreasoning and irrational fear in contrast both with rational fear and also with other negative reactions (such as distaste, disapproval, and hatred) that do not necessarily involve fear.
What then is one to make of the terms ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘homophobia’? Both terms clearly imply in a general way a negative reaction to Islam or homosexuality. The reference, however, in both cases and in any similar compound involving ‘-phobia’, is essentially propagandistic, confusing, and question-begging. The tacit implication conveyed by ‘-phobia’ is that the attitude under consideration is irrational, since irrationality is the specific difference and distinctive element that defines a phobia. The use of a ‘-phobia’ compound dismisses the ‘phobe’ and categorizes him or her as suffering from an irrational, emotional, hysterical, or even pathological fear. The ‘phobe’, as a sick or irrational person, is not properly to be reasoned with but rather ignored, if possible, or managed, isolated, or even (if necessary) treated. The more important or serious the ‘phobe’, the more important it is to dismiss, silence, or cure the irrationality in question. The ‘phobe’ is treated as suffering from a psychological illness.
The use of ‘-phobia’ compounds, in short, seeks to banish intellectual disagreements, factual discussions, or contrary moral judgements by terminological sleight of hand.
For example, the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ dismisses much, most, or even all negative opinions, findings, thoughts, or judgements about Islam and its history, adherents, and tendencies. There is ‘no enemy to the Left’ when the term is used: that is, anyone whose opinions, findings, thoughts, or judgements about Islam are more negative than those of the person who wields the term ‘Islamophobe’ is dismissed, devalued, and insulted. In effect, the wielder of the terms says, ‘Your thoughts are worthless because you are in the grip of irrational fear.’ The term implies the presence of mental illness or of inadmissible ideological deviation. Rational conversation is impossible in the face of such dismissal.
A rational conversation about Islam includes consideration of its founder, its authoritative texts, its historical development, its main divisions, its schools of jurisprudence, its influence and instantiation in past and present communities, and its theological and philosophical debates. Christians looking at Islam cannot help but note the difference between the founder of Islam in contrast with their own Founder: one goes forth to die for others, whom He forgives; the other goes forth upon horseback with a sword to conquer or kill those who cannot be persuaded. This contrast implies, at least from the perspective of Christians, a negative judgement on Islam. By application of the insult ‘Islamophobe’, those who disagree with, for example, this Christian judgement are simply dismissed. Reasoned discussion is abruptly foreclosed by the use of word magic and insult.
The use of ‘homophobia’ similarly forecloses conversation. Disagreement and disapproval are conflated with unreasoning fear – and also, usually, with hatred, though that is another matter for another discussion. Rational discussion of homosexuality is impossible in the face of such propagandistic suppression of debate and of pertinent distinctions. The widespread use of the term ‘homophobia’ suggests Kulturkampf and the imposition of social conformity. Widespread use of the term suggests not only the suppression of dissent but also the avoidance of difficult historical, biological, sociological, philosophical, and theological investigation. This is an abuse of language. Anyone who uses such a term is, wittingly or not, engaged in authoritarian propaganda, not rational conversation. That opponents of such propaganda themselves once used propaganda and authoritarian means to forward their views does not justify this newer abuse.
Irrational fear of Islam or homosexuality both can exist. But the possibility or even the actuality of an irrational fear does not justify the abandonment of clear language or the muddling of reasonable distinctions. A phobia is an irrational fear and is not disapproval, dislike, distaste, hatred, or rational fear.