In Greek mythology, Ares, god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love, had twin sons. They were named Deimos and Phobos. Deimos, the personification of terror, and Phobos, the personification of fear, would follow their father Ares into war. They continue to follow Ares — otherwise known as Mars — in the present as the two moons revolving around the red planet. Other than having his name bestowed on a moon, and a few appearances in pop culture, Deimos has not amounted to much. Phobos, however, has become so popular, he is mentioned in one form or another on a daily basis.
As you may have guessed, it’s from Phobos that the word phobia originated. A phobia is defined as “[a]n intense and sometimes disabling fear reaction to a specific object or situation that poses little or no actual danger. The level of fear is usually recognized by the individual as being irrational.”
We’re all familiar with some popular phobias. Claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces), and arachnophobia (a fear of spiders. Arachnohominophobia is the lesser-known fear of Spider-Man.) But there are countless others. One that I possess is ophidiophobia — the fear of snakes. I know, logically, that most snakes are harmless, but I will be a screaming sheep at the sight of a loose snake, and may even break into a sweat around a caged one. My favorite phobia term, though, is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, because it’s a self-discovering phobia. Mention this word to someone and if they show fear or distress, they have this fear of long words.
The list goes on and on. Literally.
Lately, poor Phobos has been co-opted into perversions of the term that have nothing to do with fear, but instead with ideological disagreements. The worst of these offenders is homophobia. The phobia list linked above does mention homophobia and has two separate definitions:
1) fear of sameness or monotony
2) fear of homosexuality or of becoming homosexual
The first definition listed is based on the Greek word homo, meaning “same or equal.” This is where we get words like homogenized, homophone, and even homosexual. Homophobia is the irrational belief that everything will stay the same; nothing will ever change. It’s an irrational belief, because we all know that everything changes.
The second definition of homophobia was in reference to the irrational fear that a person would suddenly discover he or she was attracted to the same sex. It had nothing to do with the sexual orientation of others. Until the 1960s. Suddenly, homophobia came to be known as “antipathy to [homosexuals] — and condemnation, loathing, fear, and proscription of homosexual behavior.” From irrational fear to antipathy? That’s a bit of a demotion. I can just imagine Phobos’ chagrin as he storms through the battlefield only to be met by people merely turning aside instead of running in abject fear.
But Phobos still had further to fall.
Today, one can be labeled a homophobe solely for disagreeing with a lifestyle, based on religious or social beliefs. Fear or antipathy is no longer a requirement to earn that distinction; mere disapproval — or even the perception of disapproval — is enough. Homophobia is no longer used as a diagnosis, but as a diatribe. It has become a way to belittle someone else’s beliefs and to shut down any possible chance for a meaningful dialogue.
Using homophobia as a blanket condemnation is unfair and inaccurate. It is true that there are people who fit the clinical description and react to homosexuals with fear and hatred, and sometimes even violence. But they are the minority. Most people interact with homosexuals as they would interact with anyone else. As Mike Huckabee recently said, “I accept a lot of people as friends maybe whose lifestyle I don’t necessarily adhere to, agree with or practice. Doesn’t mean that I can’t have a good relationship with anyone or lead them or govern them.”
By today’s standards, I would be considered a homophobe, yet I’ve never felt distress at the sight of a gay person. I worked in close quarters with a gay man at my last job for five years. Not once during that time did I feel fear of any kind. If anything, it was the complete opposite. I enjoyed talking and laughing with him. We pulled office pranks on each other constantly. We discussed serious matters. And we disagreed on many things. But he never called me a homophobe, and he knew exactly where I stood on the matter. In return, I never called him a heterophobe. We were able to co-exist, as people of all walks of life should.
Religion is another area where phobia-mania has gotten out of control. Disagreement on which belief system is correct is not a phobia, but actual disagreement. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. I don’t believe Islam, or any other religion, is the answer. You could call me a Buddhaphobe, a Mormonphobe, a Hinduphobe, a Shintophobe, or an Atheophobe as well as hundreds of other names to go along with Islamophobe. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a “Radical Islamophobe.” I would go to great lengths to avoid anyone in a suicide vest.) This excessive labeling is an example of the ridiculousness of using phobias to discredit differing beliefs. I would not want to be labeled as any of the above, just as I would not want to label anyone who disagrees with me a Christianophobe.
Using these labels as a way of declaring moral superiority or as a way of denigrating others for their convictions is unproductive. If we want to have honest and frank discussions, we should consider trying something innovative — agreeing to disagree. Let’s remove the term phobia as a description of “someone I don’t agree with” and reserve it for actual clinical cases.
That phobia list can be fun to play with. You could combine two or more existing phobias and create new ones. For instance:
Kleptophobia (fear of stealing) and keraunophobia (fear of thunder) can be combined to form kleptokeraunophobia — a fear of stealing someone’s thunder.
Pogonophobia (fear of beards) and gynophobia (fear of women) leads to pogonogynophobia — fear of bearded women.
Hominophobia (fear of men) can become hominohominohominophobia — fear of Ralph Kramden. (Kids, ask your parents about this one.)
What new phobias can you come up with? Feel free to share your favorites.