Eater of Trees

Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia

Posted on: April 30, 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.)


11 Responses to "Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia"

[…] Emily says it better than I ever could on her blog, so I’ll just send you there: Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia. […]

thank you for putting these thoughts into a much more coherent fashion than i seemed to be able to over the past month or so.

i think part of what bothers me so much about it all is the fact that it can take ages before people become aware of the problem, if they see it as a problem at all, because of how hush-hush the *f*eminist and social justice movement are about ableism. it took me several months, almost a year even, to find out that people found -phobia terms used in the social justice community to be a problem.

it shouldn’t have taken that long. and i’m not saying that we’re not speaking up about it – i’m saying more that those voices are being passed off and ignored by a bigger movement that thinks there are better things to do and better things to think about.

and that’s a problem. that’s a big problem. because ableism? just as valid as things like sexism, heterocentrism and cissexism.

so thank you. thank you, thank you, thank you. this is something that i’ve been talking with people about for a little while now. i just wish more people were willing to listen about it. because it’s so important.

Also recently I got a really egregious example of the disabled feminist community writing this off as irrational and “all I care about” and that I don’t speak for them. …no shit I don’t; I’m speaking for myself.

It seems a lot of ableism gets written off as not really hurting anyone. Especially ableism about mental stuff, because it’s not like you can produce concrete evidence in quite the same way.

Though I mean, i’ve got some pretty solid evidence that this specific useage has hurt me. So um. Yeah.

(And a point I didn’t mention above, but I realized later: Bigotry is basically violence, either subtle or direct, and -phobia language is usually referring to the direct stuff. So like… we’re using the same term for violent behavior and mental illness? THAT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE AND ALWAYS ENDS WELL (sarcasm)

(And I’d note that I don’t think anyone was even talking about this before this year. And I’ve barely seen anyone but me and Eric and more recently Nora write about this. (I’m sure there’s more though) The fact that I’ve seen significant change about it at all actually is like… surprisingly good.)

[…] original post “Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia” (also check out the […]

so I just found out that this discussion has been going on since, at the latest, January

did we not start it? *is confused but also interested*


I first saw the point raised on Kinsey’s tumblr, in a um, “Hey I wonder if this is problematic” way, and then a little while later I think it was a post from stfuislamophobia (which has since changed its name) asking if they should change their name; and sometime after that I started venting on the topic, and said venty posts got some circulation; and at some point tekanji wanted to update the list of problematic words for Iris and asked me if I had anything, and most of what I’d written was venty and not detailed discussion, so I wrote this.

I didn’t start it myself but I’m one of the first people I’m aware of to write a detailed discussion on WHY it’s a problem? But I haven’t researched in depth; I think this post probably IS the most circulated but, again, there might be others I haven’t seen.

It would’ve had to have been January or later, because that’s when I made a tumblr.

Hi! I have a question: Do you know a way to handle “biphobia”? I know, there’s monosexism which I’ve been using from time to time, but then, how do you call poly-hatred? Because I’ve also seen monosexism in that meaning. I found that slightly confusing, so I fell back on biphobia and promptly (and rightly) got called out. I’m both, so I frequently encounter the question of which term to use.
(Also, I like latin terms, because usually they translate into German easily, while there isn’t really a German word for “bigotry”. There is one for “hate”, though, so I could use that, but I’d probably be the first)

Well I’m not going to be of much help with German terminology. (I also don’t know if the phobia issue would be a problem in german or not)

Um, I’ve used mononormativity or monogamism or compulsary monogamy (depending on exactly the context; the first would be like, every relationship model assumes monogamy, the second is more, like, “polyness is cheating and thus terrible” or “poly people don’t REALLY love each other”; and the third is just, when people force you to be monogamous.) I think monogamism might be the best term (for the idea that monogamy is the only True and Serious relationship model)

It’s also worth noting that “bisexual” is not the only non-monosexual sexuality, which is another benefit to monosexism (the same benefit applies to heterosexism; by implying heterosexism is “homophobia” this also tends to promote ideas that nonmonosexual people should just be lumped in with gay people and get support for their “gay side” there, and go to mainstream supports for their “straight side” which… isn’t how it works.)

Oh you are so great. Thank you thank you! That’s two terms I can directly use in German as well, plus one that’s reasonably easy to translate, plus such a great differentiation in the meanings of the terms, plus the case you make for monosexism/heterosexism is SO GOOD, even if I did use both before, I didn’t even realize how it’s so much better even for me personally.
.. yeah, I’m afraid the phobia issue does apply to German as well, as “Phobie”‘s the term we use for … well, phobias, too. There’s also apparently a sociological use where it means aversion (in individuals, that is), but that makes even less sense.
I like the first two terms because they imply institutional power, and I need that most of the time.

Like, just yesterday someone linked to an article in a comment thread that was just pure hate against polyamory and poly people, and how am I supposed to argue against that by using a “phobia” or “prejudice” or “hate”? Because hate was the intent of the whole piece – the author was completely up front with it. Only I don’t really have a problem with the hate (well I do, but I can handle it as long as I can just avoid people), I have a problem with the -ism they draw on.
So that’s one more argument against the -phobia terms, even if they weren’t ableist, most of the time they don’t make sense in the context they’re used (well that’s kind of what you wrote above, only apparently I’m slow in understanding). That’s why we changed to (anti-muslim) racism from islamophobia (well, where I am, these are the translations of the German terms), because that’s what we were about, prejudice + power.

[…] Natürlich konnte ich nicht widerstehen, aber ein vielleicht sinnvollerer Artikel zum Einstieg ist „Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia“ von Emily Emily […]

[…] Links: kiturak – Hass ist keine Geisteskrankheit Eater of Trees – Why you shouldn’t conflate bigotry and phobia […]

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