Debateophobia: a fear of free and frank discussion

Branding one's political opponents as 'phobic' is a sly and illiberal tactic.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

Poor Stephen Fry. Over the years he has been cavalier about condemning certain people as homophobic. As a consummate practitioner of the art of emotional correctness, he knows that the charge of phobia – whether homophobia, Islamophobia, Judaeophobia, xenophobia and even Europhobia (hatred of the EU) – rings all the right bells.

Yet now he finds himself on the receiving end of the phobia slur – and he isn’t happy about it. He’s been accused of being nothing less than an ‘Islamophobe’, after he defended the anti-religious crusader Richard Dawkins’ stupid remarks on Twitter regarding Islam’s undistinguished historical role.

‘Am I an Islamophobe?’, asked Fry in his cringing defence of the right to criticise what he called ‘Islamofascism’. Depicting himself as a lonely liberal valiantly fighting for unpopular causes, he lamented that the ‘squeezed liberal finds himself in the position that cannot criticise Islamofascism because it’s somehow “racist”’.

Unfortunately, Fry is very selective indeed in his defence of the right to criticise beliefs and practices that one abhors. For this squeezed liberal has no inhibitions about denouncing critics of gay marriage as homophobes. Just as some dogmatic commentators insist on equating the questioning of Islam with Islamophobia, so many defenders of the gay-marriage consensus cannot imagine that their opponents might just have some genuine intellectual or moral criticisms of gay marriage.

Allegations and counter-allegations of ‘phobia!’ point to a disturbing development in the public life of Western societies. The ascendancy of the metaphor of phobia is inversely proportional to the depoliticisation of certain views and outlooks. For example, the displacement of the term anti-Semitism by Judaeophobia represents the supplanting of a political category (hatred of Jews) with a psychological one (irrational fear of Jewish stuff). Similarly, through the narrative of Islamophobia, prejudice against Muslim people is depoliticised and turned into a medical problem.

As is the case with all medical diagnoses, accusing someone of being phobic is really to make a statement about that person’s mental and moral condition. So the diagnosis of homophobia or Islamophobia is not so much a comment on the content of what has been said, as it is a verdict about the psychological deficits of the guilty, phobia-suffering party. When Fry protested his innocence of the charge of Islamophobia, he was in effect rejecting its implied psychological slur.

The rise of the narrative of phobia reflects the increasing influence of the therapeutic culture, which tends to interpret conflict and troublesome behaviour through the medium of psychology. In our therapeutic era, emotional dysfunctions are frequently depicted as the cause of social problems. Unprocessed or unmanaged emotions are said to be the source of many of the ills that afflict society. Even wars between nations are now attributed to some emotional or psychological defect on the part of a group or leader. The early twentieth-century term xenophobia is no longer simply a descriptive term; rather, it is a therapeutic diagnosis.

The irrational fears associated with all these so-called phobias are said to be just a few of the many emotional disorders that dominate life today. The diagnosis of phobia is a central part of a therapeutic worldview which looks upon stress, rage, trauma, low self-esteem and addiction as dominant features of the human experience.

The therapeutic worldview is not just about medicalising individuals and our behaviour. It also tries to provide a system of meaning through which human experience might be interpreted and understood. In the twenty-first century, meaning is increasingly sought in the realm and idiom of emotions. Through the policing of emotions, some attitudes are condemned as negative and others held up as positive. So hate is a negative and happiness a positive emotion. The range of emotions which fuel a ‘phobia’ are all diagnosed as negative, which is why this sentiment can be so readily pathologised.

Today’s meshing together of moral and medical categories makes it very difficult to have a mature and tolerant exchange of opinions. The labelling of someone’s speech, attitudes or behaviour as a phobia shuts down discussion. It is not possible to have a genuine, substantive debate or disagreement with someone who is diagnosed as phobic – after all, there is little point in taking the arguments of irrational and psychologically disturbed individuals seriously. Apparently, such people don’t have rational political views; they are simply possessed of an irrational mental condition.

So the narrative of phobia absolves people of the tough task of defending their views through debate, by inviting them to medicalise their opponents and in the process close down discussion. The medicalisation of political opponents represents a kind of existential annihilation of those we disagree with. Diagnosed as irrational or ill, they can be safely ignored; their opinions can be treated as symptoms of a mental disorder, which we don’t have to take seriously.

The authoritarian implications of this resorting to psychological demonisation are clear if we think back to Stalin’s Russia. There, dissidents were sometimes incarcerated in mental-health institutions. Today in the West, phobic individuals are not incarcerated, of course. But they do face cultural and institutional stigmatisation. How long before ‘phobics’ are encouraged to participate in anger-management classes or pressurised to have their awareness raised?

The dehumanising premise behind the narrative of phobia, the systematic refusal to take seriously the mental capacities of one’s opponents, is the apotheosis of closed-mindedness. When people refuse to submit their arguments to full public scrutiny, on the basis that anyone who tries to knock them down is a ‘hater’ or ‘phobic’, then issues are rarely clarified and truth remains obscured. What we end up with is debatephobia.

No, Stephen Fry and his mate Richard Dawkins do not suffer from Islamophobia. They are, to use an old-fashioned political expression, just utterly wrong.

Frank Furedi‘s new book, Authority: A Sociological History, will be published by Cambridge University Press later this month. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture: Shutterstock

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Topics Politics


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