Friday, January 9, 2015

Type I Phobia

Words have both denotative (rational, dictionary) definitions and connotative (emotional, vernacular) interpretations. So do suffixes. One such suffix that sports a denotative meaning a bit at odds with its connotative evocation is "-phobia."

A phobia is an extreme or irrational fear or aversion. A fear of going outside is a phobia on a calm, temperate day absent political or social unrest. But if there's a tornado warning or a riot happening, that sort of fear is justified—it's not a phobia.

I confess to being a bit of a natural stickler when it comes to medical diagnosis. It's no more cute or endearing to hear, "I check the lock three times whenever I leave the house, I'm so OCD" than it is to hear, "I could barely make it up the stairs this morning, I have such cancer." If you really have OCD, that's awful and debilitating, as it is if you actually have cancer. It seems just to me to either treat them both as sacred or both as profane. I don't see the virtue in discriminating.

But discriminate we do, which is why actual irrational terror of, say, spiders can get lumped in with brown-bag bigotry. Few bigots' distaste for homosexuals or Muslims or immigrants actually qualifies as a clinical condition, one that they need to seek treatment for.

For the most part, bigots don't need medication or extensive counseling. They just need a little humanity in their lives. Do yourself a rhetorical favor and make your language more euvoluntary. Drop the -phobia unless it's genuinely warranted. And if it is, consider helping the person in question find professional help. Phobias can be a dreadful burden.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?