Bigots are just sick at heart

That is the title of an opinion piece yesterday in The Australian.  The author is a professor of psychology who argues that it is counterproductive to label people who don’t like gays, foreigners or Muslims as homophobes, xenophobes and Islamophobes.  They are really just prejudiced, and not afflicted with a psychological malady, he says!

The author, Nick Haslam, sees the problem of using those words (phobia has a psychological definition) against people one disagrees with as resulting only in firming up the prejudiced persons prejudice.

…..seeing other people’s attitudes as phobias is counterproductive. People accused of homophobia, Islamophobia and so on can readily deny the accusation, first because they experience their aversion as rooted in moral principle rather than fear; and, second, because they bristle at the accuser’s condescension. In this position it is no surprise that people feel belittled or derided as attitudinal barbarians. The backlash that results among people who hold prejudiced attitudes, anger at the perceived arrogance and vanity of the so-called elites, helps to account for the durability of those attitudes.

And then this made me laugh.  Obviously suggesting that anyone concerned about the spread of Islam or excessive immigration is prejudiced, that their concerns are not based on legitimate fears arising from analysis of the evidence,  he sounds pretty prejudiced himself:

Prejudice flourishes among people who are cold, callous, inflexible, closed-minded and conventional, not among those who are anxious and fear-prone.

As I have joked before, I’m not a deep thinker!   So, I consider this type of discussion a waste of time because it keeps people occupied yakking instead of taking some action.  And right now I have fallen for the same trap because instead of getting news to you, I’m yakking about the meaning of words!

Nonetheless, I admit this piece was somewhat revealing, so here is more of what Mr. Haslam has to say in his attempt to eliminate the use of the “phobia” words.

DESCRIBING someone’s aversion to a group as a phobia is an attempt to insult the person. Their attitudes are nothing but the symptoms of a pathology. Homophobia, Islamophobia and so on would have no pejorative force if suffering from a mental disorder was not seen as shameful and demeaning. To diagnose people with these phobias is to recruit the stigma of mental illness to diminish them.

In this respect, the supposed phobias continue an ignoble tradition of misuse of psychiatric language. Schizophrenic, misunderstood as split personality, is still used to refer to any apparent contradiction, or even mature ambivalence, in a person’s thoughts, feelings or actions. Hysterical continues to be used to sneer at female emotionality.

Homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic should be seen in the same light, as ways of brushing aside opinions we dislike by invalidating the people who hold them.

It could be argued that none of this matters. Perhaps calling attitudes phobias is meant as harmless metaphor, not as literal diagnosis. But words have consequences, and the consequences of pathologising social attitudes include moral arrogance, invalidation and backlash. These disorders close the door on dialogue. Let’s cure our language of them.

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