The Fallacy of the "Phobia" Charge

by Doy Moyer

Typically, by its very nature, a phobia is an irrational fear. Phobiasource tells us that real phobias are an emotional or anxiety disorder causing one to experience an intense irrational fear. The person's reaction is automatic (uncontrollable), and may result in rapid heart beat, shaking and trembling, the feeling of need to flee, shortness of breath or inability to breathe, and maybe even panic attacks. It's a serious matter to be sure.

When I was a child of about three or four, some of my earliest memories include specific dreams (nightmares?) of creepy clowns trying to abduct me. To this day I still remember those dreams. I don't know why I had them. Maybe it was a scary trip to the circus. Maybe I had to dress like one. Now it has become a bit of a joke for those who know me, and even though I can tolerate clowns (grit my teeth), they are never my favorite part of any show. The fear was irrational. I was a child, but I had no particular reason to actually think I would be taken by creepy clowns. But again, that's the nature of many phobias.

I'm told there is a fear of bald people called Peladophobia. I think I can testify to this, given the number of students who were scared to come talk to me. It must have been my beautiful bald head. There's also homolophobia, the fear of sermons. Some that appear on the list of phobias seem a bit arbitrary, but I suppose some people do experience a form of anxiety over just about anything. Again, per above, some phobias elicit severe reactions, causing people to freeze up and become unable to function. I've never experienced a phobia quite like that, and it certainly will not do to mock those who do have such debilitating fears.

This brings me to another concern. Our culture has locked into using "phobia" as a way to bully and marginalize those who differ on serious moral issues. The criterion for having some of these phobias is simply disagreeing over the actions and choices people make. This use of "phobia" is a misuse. Like crying wolf too many times, "phobia" gets overplayed and cheapens how people understand true, paralyzing phobias. Disagreement is not a phobia, especially when accompanied by reason and desire for discussion.

Let's take perhaps the most common example of this: "homophobia." I know this is listed among phobias, and I suppose it is possible that this can be a real phobia on the same order as one's phobia of snakes or spiders, though I've never met a person who has an uncontrollable anxiety disorder over this. If such actually exist, then they need compassion and help, not bullying and insults. However, I am going to guess that we all know that is not why the term is being used so freely. The term, rather, has been used to marginalize, divide, and isolate those who believe that practicing same-sex relations is sinful. The term, as used in common culture, is a misuse of "phobia" for the simple reason that believing something is sinful as a practice is not the same having an irrational fear about it. Disagreement over the nature of a practice is not a legitimate reason to say that someone has a phobia about that practice. I believe it is sinful to speak evil of someone, but I don't have a phobia about meeting people who speak evil. I believe it is wrong and will teach others the same. I believe that adultery is sinful, but I don't have a phobia in the presence of an adulterer. I will teach that it is sinful and that the one practicing it needs to repent, but shall we seriously label this as a "phobia"? How far will we take it? Shall we label everyone who disagrees with us as phobic? So much for rational discourse! The irony is that the charge is irrational when it is made because people disagree over the nature of the practice.

I have no fear of being in the presence of those who practice same-sex relations. When given opportunities, I will gladly sit down and talk with them. I will be happy to share the gospel with them. If they come into our assemblies, I will welcome them as they have put themselves in a position to learn and perhaps understand the need for Jesus, who Himself ate with sinners. Yet because I would teach the need for repentance, I would still be labeled "homophobic." Or, if the very same scenario concerned a muslim, I would be labeled "islamophobic." Disagree about a practice, and you have a phobia about it. The "phobia" rhetoric is a discussion-ender, not a bridge to better understanding. Nor is it designed to bring help to those who have a real phobia.

These types of labels do nothing for rational discourse. Their purpose is to marginalize and, essentially, try to bully others into submission and agreement. After all, who wants to be known as a homophobic, islamophobic, whatever-o-phobe? It makes we wonder if we have a phobia about being labeled phobic.

Instead of charging others with having a phobia because they disagree, why not try to engage real discourse? Why do you disagree? How did you reach your conclusion? How can we seek a better understanding? If, in the end, we still disagree, then that's just the way it will have to be. If, at that point, we resort to "phobia" labels because the other person doesn't fall in line with "my" view, then we have failed to respect the rational process. If there is an actual fear, then this requires a different conversation.