Here is my column in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution, ‘The problem with phobias.’  It addresses the way we use the term phobia to insult our opponents; and how very wrong it is to do so.

Here’s the text as well:

I admit that I have fears. They are generally based on my own experiences or my observation of the experiences of others. For instance, I’m afraid of accidents or infections that might take my wife and children from me. A career spent in the emergency department will do that. I’m a big fan of flu vaccines, seat belts and having everyone safe at home before midnight, after which time bad things tend to happen. Professionally, I’m afraid of missed diagnoses, lost airways and other things that give physicians heart-burn and troubled dreams. I am a bit uncomfortable with rattlesnakes and very nervous about drunk drivers.

What I am not, as far as I can tell, is phobic about anything. A phobia is an unreasonable, irrational fear which has little basis in reality. However, in recent years we have seen the word phobia used as a pejorative; even as a kind of taunt or tease. It has become a cultural bludgeon which is wielded to stamp out dissent.

In particular, I’m concerned about the use of the words ‘xenophobia,’ ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia.’ These are much misused words that have been given excessive weight in political discourse.

The charge of xenophobia is comical. It suggests that if we are uncertain, or fearful, of things which are different or unknown, we are irrational. In point of fact, fear of the unknown is almost universal, and seems to me a sign of common sense. We must evaluate the unknown and assess how it will affect us, before we simply embrace it. Xenophobia is the operating principle of the FDA, the EPA and numerous other agencies. The unknown may prove wonderful or deadly. It pays to look first, then embrace.

As far as homophobia, I know and respect gay and lesbian individuals. I also treat them in my practice of emergency medicine. Many that I have met are delightful people who contribute greatly to the community. Still, I fear the implications of the homosexual agenda as it concerns the freedom of religious expression. But I do not have irrational fear (or animosity) towards gays or lesbians.

However, this very column will likely result in the charge of homophobia. How tragic, because the accusation will be reflexive, and will probably suggest that disagreement equals phobia equals hatred.

Likewise, I am not afraid of Muslims. I was greatly influenced by a Muslim surgeon when I was considering medicine as a young man. His professionalism and compassion, his encouragement and gentle demeanor affected me deeply. As a physician I have worked with many Muslims. And when I have treated them, have found them well educated, kind and concerned for their families (a thing we could use more of in Western culture).

I am still concerned about the implications of aggressive Islamist rhetoric and activities. I am indeed afraid of the application of Sharia law in the West, and the way it could usurp our exceptional legal traditions and our cherished freedoms. I am certainly afraid of the violent acts of Islamic extremists.

I will now, no doubt, be accused of Islamophobia. Nevertheless, I do not think my fears are phobic, but are in fact ‘evidence-based.’ A fairly brief study of ancient and modern history will quickly illustrate the dangers of more aggressive, doctrinaire Islamic political movements. Fear can be rational as well as irrational. I do not consider myself an Islamophobe, but an American with his eyes open to the past and the future.

When we accuse our political or philosophical opponents of phobia, we are simply (and with passive-aggression) shutting down dialogue. The same accusation of phobia might well be leveled in many directions. Are progressives Christophobic? Are gays heterophobes? Is the President rural-o-phobic? Are environmentalists pediophobes, in calling for fewer children, or industriophobic, in their concern about pollution?

Fear is an old weapon. But the accusation of irrational fear seems relatively new; a post-modern, back handed way to call people stupid and unreasonable. Worse, a way to imply that anything other than total acceptance of divergent views is (ironically) intolerant and that any fear or suspicion is antiquated.

I don’t believe I am alone in my assessment. Many persons, accused of ignorance and phobia, are not at all either. They simply have concerns based on personal values or careful observation. And few of them desire to harm those with whom they are at odds. Rational concern need not equal violent hatred.

What a pity the accusation of phobia is itself so very irrational and intolerant. And so strangely grounded in fear.

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