Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The pathologizing of dissent

A "phobia" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation." I, for example, am acrophobic, which manifests itself every time I look down from the balcony of my seventh-floor apartment. Phobias exist, but the use of the term in political debate is almost always illegitimate; it is a particular type of ad hominem, a way to de-legitimize without engaging. From Brendan O'Neill's "Stop Smearing Critics of Islam as Islamophobes,":
.... We live in an era of phobias. They are apparently spreading like a ravenous blob, turning more and more human minds black with prejudice. Today, it isn’t only fear of spiders, clowns, or open spaces that is branded a phobia—so are certain ways of thinking, certain beliefs, moral viewpoints that fall outside the mainstream. ....

It isn’t only Islam and its sympathizers who use the phobe label to chill legitimate moral debate. Everyone’s at it.

Gay-rights activists have become way too fond of using the word “homophobe,” not only to attack actual anti-gay bigots but also to slam people who simply oppose gay marriage, for religious reasons, or who aren’t in love with every aspect of the gay lifestyle. Here, too, legit moral viewpoints are reimagined as irrational fears and in the process demonized. ....

Heaven help anyone who criticizes any aspect of transgender politics. Question the idea that boys who identify as girls should be allowed to use the girls’ toilets at school and you’re a transphobe. Wonder out loud if gender is at least partly biological and you're a transphobe. ....

What we’re witnessing is the pathologizing of dissent, the treatment of edgy or just eccentric ideas as illnesses requiring silencing or even treatment. It’s a cynical attempt by certain groups and their media cheerleaders to opt-out of the battle of ideas by branding their opponents as irrational, and therefore not worthy of engagement.

.... In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure Winston Smith of his anti-authority outlook: “You are mentally deranged," he tells him. “Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane!”

The 21st-century West is rife with O’Briens, keen to cure us of our phobias. .... [more]