Eater of Trees

Archive for April 2011

Phobias are real things that impact the lives of many people.  Bigotry and oppressive forces are also a thing that impacts the lives of many people. But they’re not the same thing.  At all.

Specifically phobias are when something or other produces an extremely strong unpleasant emotional reaction, mostly fear or panic.  You see a bee, and you completely freeze up and can’t move because the bee is going to hurt you (even though, logically, you know that’s unlikely and if it did the pain would be annoying and not serious)

Phobias are not generally taken very seriously.  This is a recurring problem; wherein people will try to expose you to your phobia for a variety of reasons, possibly because they think you need exposure therapy and have decided to skip the informed consent stage.  Or possibly because they find it funny, or any variety of reasons.  All of which are extremely ableist; at best trying to “help” you in a way that denies your agency, at worst outright abuse.

And further, people will often treat people with phobias very condescendingly.  Insisting that you should just magically get over it or that your emotional reaction is a sign of weakness or any other variety of derogatory treatment for it.  People will completely disregard the needs of their readers, and, for example, illustrate their writing with pictures of blood or insects in ways that make it hard to avoid said pictures; assuming that their readers emotional safety is just a concern to be casually tossed aside.  (Further ignoring the fact, of course, that if you trigger your readers, they are unlikely to remain your readers.)

The thing is, the suffix “-phobia” is used for two completely different things.

One thing is phobias; which are a mental process that is rather disruptive and tends to preclude clear thinking.  The other is bigotry.  Bigotry is hate.  It’s treating people as less than human.  It’s systematically denying people basic rights and disrupting their lives.

But it’s not a phobia.

Calling it one gives reasonability to the panic defense; when someone claims that they just panicked because the victim of a hate crime was different and that made them commit said crime.  Because phobias do result in an inability to think clearly, although they don’t usually result in violence so much as hiding.  Further calling bigotry a phobia serves to make oppressors sympathetic.  After all, their bigotry is just an out of control emotional reaction.  It says that they are the ones who are suffering, not the people who they are oppressing.

Using “-phobia” to discuss bigotry shames phobias as well.  Telling people that their emotional reactions are as bad as forces that systematically dehumanize and kill people on a regular basis prevents people from being able to discuss their reactions without being read as terrible people.  It prevents people from being able to deal with their phobias in useful ways, whether by avoiding them or by attempting to find treatment for them.  It encourages people to hurt themselves by entering painful situations and ignoring the pain, because the pain is seen as a manifestation of their own personal failures.  Using “-phobia” for bigotry is an example of bigotry and is definitely oppressive.

This becomes especially a problem because occasionally oppression and phobias overlap.  If you spend your life shamed for expressing a personality trait or because of your mind, and are constantly harassed and demeaned because of something about you, and see people around you who exhibit said trait be harassed and treated as jokes or disguisting or terrible people, you can quickly develop a phobia of said trait.

But then, when you have that reaction, everyone around you uses the words to describe your reaction to describe the people who hate you.  Who’s oppression has caused this reaction in the first place.  You have panic attacks when you try to transition because you’ve been bombarded by messages that trans people are terrible and freaks.  Only then, you can’t talk about it.  You can’t say “Oh hey I have a phobia of being trans” because transphobia isn’t anxiety about stepping outside of prescribed gender roles, it’s oppression of people who do that.  Calling oppression of trans people transphobia is likely to be oppressive to trans people.

Fighting bigotry with bigotry isn’t just helping one group at the expense of another, it’s hurting the group you’re trying to help, and makes their oppressors sympathetic. This is, understandably, problematic.

Further, there are relatively reasonable replacements for many common “-phobia” terms, that often serve better to explain what the oppressive forces are.  For example, cissexism much more clearly encompasses all the manifestations of oppression and erasure of transness, not merely the overt violence.

Monosexism, cissexism, and heterosexism are all words that much more clearly discuss how erasure and normativizing one group at the expense of others is a problematic element of society.

(In addition, replacing “phobia” with “-hate” or “-bigotry” can serve to allow discussion of specifically more overt violence, or in cases where there isn’t such an obvious replacement term.)

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(I also wrote a less formal discussion of what I liked about Portal 2 on my Tumblr.  This document contains spoilers.)

Portal 2 is unfortunately not nearly as inclusive as the first.  The first the worst problem (that I noticed) was that there was some implication that GlaDOS’s amorality was being equated with people with mental health issues.  Portal 2, however, has two points I found problematic: ableist humor (as well as some other varieties of bigoted humor) and the treatment of GlaDOS’s character.  The former was mostly small moments, but they recurred regularly throughout the game, and overall it created an environment that strongly sent a message that if you’re disabled (or otherwise nonnormative) you’re not worth anything.  The latter I’m slightly more ambivalent on, but it still contributed to an environment that made me uneasy.

Spoiler cut.

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