Friday, February 13, 2009

Fear and loathing

I warn you now, not only does this have nothing to do with boats, it isn't even mildly amusing. But it's something that's bothered me for quite a while, and I was reminded of it by this story in the paper this morning.

It's the misuse of the suffix 'phobia' that bothers me. It started with homophobia, and now we have Islamophobia; more new formations will no doubt follow if they haven't already.

But the thing is, a phobia is a fear. An unreasonable fear, but a fear nonetheless. And we usually feel sympathy for people who are afraid of something, no matter how foolish or misplaced we judge their fear to be.

These new 'phobias' do not actually refer to fears at all, but to hatreds. Fear and loathing may well be closely related, but they are not the same thing. We can sympathise with someone who is afraid of, say, horses, but not someone who wants to go out and hurt them, or wipe them off the face of the earth.

Take women. There are two clearly different words to describe fear of women - gynaephobia, and hatred of women - misogyny. So it is possible; there is a prefix available that denotes (unreasonable) hatred. We need to be able to make this distinction in other areas as well. The lazy use of the term 'phobia' by journalists who can't construct a new term with a more appropriate 'mis' prefix robs us of a valuable sublety in our language, and brackets together those who fear and those who hate. It's not the same thing, and we shouldn't allow the lazy use of language to blur the distinction.

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