In the early 1960s, General Knowledge was a competitive sport - at least it was in my boys’ grammar school. Countries and capitals; tallest, longest, deepest …. In this world, phobias were things which lent themselves to alphabetical challenges: Name a phobia beginning with H! (Answer: Hydrophobia).
These phobias were, with one exception, names given to fears - very varied fears (arachnophobia, claustrophobia, nyctophobia …) but all deserving of sympathy, explanation, and - in some cases - treatment. The exception was xenophobia which hovered between a fear and a hatred, so that it was unclear whether it deserved sympathy or disapproval - none of us boys thought it could be a badge of honour. And though we probably used the word xenophobic to characterise attitudes, we were less likely to label people xenophobes; somehow we had got hold of the idea that you shouldn’t, in general, reduce a person to one of their aspects.
It's true, we did have hate figures, in the front line Henry Brooke, the UKs Conservative Home Secretary 1962-64 who the archives show to have been even worse than we believed him (see Richard Davemport-Hines, An English Affair (2012)). But we had no means of giving effect to our feelings other than by writing Letters to the Editor or taking part in demonstrations. We had no social media.
Returning to our phobias, they were normally characterised as “irrational” and though that is an imprecise and potentially contentious qualification it did roughly succeed in distinguishing between reasonable fears induced by the immediate presence of a highly poisonous species of spider and unreasonable fears attaching to the usual ones found in cupboards and gardens.
Things change. Modern phobias are names for alleged hatreds (homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia …) and the words are primarily used to point the finger at people, reduced - essentialised - to one of their aspects: Homophobe! Islamophobe! Transphobe! They leave no room for sympathy, explanation, or treatment. A ‘phobe is a ‘phobe, through and through, best dealt with by denunciation and exclusion from the society of the elect. Thus the world of Twitter and university campuses.
What is most odd about this finger-pointing essentialism is that it is performed by people who are, for the most part, also committed to the idea that everything is a social construct which is to say that there are, in fact, no essences and no natures, only contingent and changeable social fabrications. If that doctrine is true, or even only partially true, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia are social constructs. I think that they are - and of very recent fabrication, too. They have been specifically designed for weaponised use as finger-pointing, denunciatory weapons which expose the dark hearts of the wicked and the witches.
Those last words are not hyperbolic. The social constructions which produce the - phobe targets of denunciation are the work of theologians - or, at least, Sunday school teachers - and fairly pitiless ones. The barbed arrows aimed so freely on Twitter and in university discourse carry within them no invitation to make amends, no offer of redemption, no suggestion that the phobias might be irrational fears or - God forbid! - even have some rational aspect. Any distinction between toxic spiders and harmless ones is unknown to the theologians. Their world is one which allows no room for uncertainty or reasonable disagreement, things which are central to the mind-set of democrats and humanists. I'll digress a bit to consider that by way of an example.
Secularists, who normally think of themselves as democrats and humanists, might be said to fear and even loathe organised religions; in consequence, they must surely be considered Islamophobic.
The secularist’s obvious first line of self-defence is to point out that they are also Christophobic so whatever their belief, it is not discriminatory in the way that Islamophobe! supposes. Google barely recognises the term Christophobic, which is not in current Twitter use, but if they are Islamophobes secularists must also be recognised as Christophobes - though they would deny that they are irrationally so: the newspapers every day contain stories of clerical abuse and corruption which show that secularists have a lot of evidence on their side. It is no accident that our oh-so-liberal Christian bishops are happy to debate with and even cosy up to atheists (what’s a difference of belief between friends who dine at the same high table?), but extend no such affection to secularists who threaten their incomes and the worldly power which for centuries has allowed them to hide their crimes and avoid ordinary accountabilities.
A second line of defence for the secularist is to attempt a clear distinction between organisational religions and the religious beliefs of individuals. Unlike the atheist, the secularist has no quarrel with the latter as such and will agree that such beliefs are not in themselves a ground for any form of discrimination. They are not on their own toxic, indeed may be very far from it: the beliefs are compatible with being a very good person. But it's not always so simple: some religions are inseparable from their organisational form: there is no Roman Catholicism outside the Roman Catholic church, a position very clearly articulated in the Church’s own doctrines: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the church there is no salvation). Well, of course, that is the most extravagant attempt at institutional self-preservation ever made and is open to a very simple objection, How do you know? But it remains true that there is no wriggle room for an individual Roman Catholic: either you are In or you are Out and if you are Out you are not a Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is not a personal belief; it is an attachment to an organisation. In contrast, many forms of Protestant belief do not require institutional adherence or any demand for secular power over such things as schools.
It would seem that those currently targeted as - phobes could either accept the scarlet letter and wear it proudly or seek to demonstrate that it does not apply and that the attitudes, arguments or beliefs they have articulated do not amount to proof of wickedness or witchcraft. But the latter response runs up against the problem that no one is listening. The students and faculty who recently drove Kathleeen Stock from the pleasant parkland campus of the University of Sussex (“No TERFS on our Turf” read one of the banners) have no intention of actually reading her book Material Girls (2021); she has been convicted by tweet and the sentence cannot be appealed.
This is why being accused of homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia - the list will no doubt grow longer - poses such a threat to those who may be picked out for denunciation. It is not only that the denunciations quickly replicate across a million screens - almost as if human intervention is not required - it is also that they contain within them prosecution case, verdict, and sentence. Once made, the accusations will never be withdrawn; no apologies ever made. And sentences are indeed carried out. Papal infallibility is a pale thing is comparison.