Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
“…an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.”
Thus the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for “phobia.”
How could such a condition be made illegal? Courts would have to determine whether a fear was sufficiently exaggerated, sufficiently inexplicable, or sufficiently illogical, in order to ascertain whether the accused was sufficiently guilty of phobia.
Since it’s not possible to make such a determination, other than arbitrarily and with reference to a scale which itself could not be validated, the question becomes: why? If a phobia, a fear, is “inexplicable” and “illogical”, why criminalise those subject to its clammy embrace?
Enough theory. Maybe the practice would be fine, regardless of the rationale?
People who are phobic about cats annoy me, and it’s election week, so let’s make me the leader of the Opposition. I propose making ailurophobia an “aggravated” criminal offence, and therefore open to peculiarly aggressive sentencing. Picture the scene, chez moi:
Me: “Aw look, it’s Kitty, come to say hello.”
Kitty cat: “Miaow!”
Phobic visitor, vibrating in terror: “…GET IT AWAY FROM ME!”
Me: “Why? She’s just saying hello. (Kitty want tuna? Tuna? Where your special spoon?)”
PV: “I can’t explain it! It’s illogical – my house is stuffed with small, furry mammals of at least two dozen different species. But I have a special horror about the feline sort!”
Me (face darkening): “Dislike of my cat is one thing, but…ailurophobia? I hope they stone you to death for your hate-crime!”
Most of the time, “phobic” visitors are just people who don’t like cats, who have found an unchallengeable way to justify their totally random (and bad) taste. Instead of saying, “I’ve never really got on with cats, and at some level I distrust the people who fuss around after them,” we get the “phobia”, the Greek root lending simple dislike the cloak of pseudo-medical respectability.
In truth, of course, I’d no more support a law to criminalise people who might “illogically” fear and detest cats, than I’d support a law to…
…you can tell where this is going.
But let’s not leave home, not just yet.
Though I’ve written often enough about attacks on gay people, and the evil of Section 28, and the long-yet-rapid journey towards the full emancipation of same-sex oriented citizens, there’s one word (I think) I’ve never used (and if you find a case where I have used it, please consider that a failure of self-editing, because I always try to avoid it). I’ve never accused an individual of homophobia.
One reason is the direct analogue of the cat story: I don’t really believe such a phobia exists, or that if it does, that it’s measurable; and if it’s unmeasurable, I don’t think it should have much to do with man-made law. We should be judged on our acts, and not the immeasurable depths of our subconscious.
One has to be very precise, here. I’m not arguing that bigotry, intolerance and sheer wickedness are absent from life, or that we should ignore such acts. This isn’t an argument for ending campaigns to stop the bullying of generation after generation of gay schoolchildren, for example.
I’m not suggesting that there aren’t people fixated with the phantom menace posed by gay people; the sort who liken our love lives to bestiality, or who cover boroughs with “gay free zone” posters, or who look on approvingly while squads of their acolytes carry out the street-cleansing plan.
My point is that the pseudo-scientific term “homophobia” acts as a refuge from confronting real wickedness. It provides cover to those who would ascribe their actions to some subconscious – illogical, inexplicable – and therefore uncontrollable, loss of agency. (Wasn’t “panic” the excuse which gay-bashers used to give police? Psychological confusion induced by the homosexual other: it was the poofters’ fault, officer. My God told me to do it.)
Not in my name. And now we change gear.
What about a visitor who confesses, when confronted with Kitty: “I’m not cat-phobic, actually. I dislike cat theory and cat practice, now, but that’s because of that roomful of cartoonists killed by that group of cats. And that soldier, killed by a cat-lover who understood that other cats wanted him to do so. And that corrupt cat who took over a borough fraudulently, while all the Left smiled knowingly on and the police did fuck all about it. Because of all that, and oh so much more, I’ve decided I don’t really want anything to do with them.” How ought we to respond to this?
Firstly, I’d not accuse my visitor of having a psychological dysfunction, still less of having committed a thought-crime.
Secondly, I’d understand the need for the cat community to look itself in the mirror (good luck with that). If you define yourself as “community” – and so many of the non-cat analogues of this allegorical piece do so, completely of their own volition – then you cannot claim that acts which have their origin in your community have nothing to do with you; or that anyone who expresses such an opinion suffers from a criminal “phobia”.
Cats, in other words, have a greater duty to condemn the killing of mice than do dogs: that some dogs are also cruel is irrelevant. You can’t be in-and-not-in a community, picking and choosing the preposition according to the acts your fellow communitarians commit. Not in my name. In whose, then?
Thirdly, of course, boringly, of course, I’d encourage my visitor to get to know my actual cat a bit better. I’m sure they’d find that they could get along. Not all cats are the same, and disliking all of them because some of them are cruel is silly, and irrational; but you learn that from first-hand experience, not because of the law.
One last point for Mr Miliband, and anyone else inclined to criminalise “phobias” in order to curry favour with various “communities” (the week before an election! My!) In my thought-experiment skit, “Graeme” told the ailurophobic visitor that they ought to be “stoned to death” for their crime. You knew as you read those words that I was joking, just as you’d realise, were this “Graeme” a member of quite a different community, that you couldn’t be sure; not without careful further questioning. Why?
Answer that question honestly, and you’ll understand why Miliband’s proposal is an outrage.