Remain calm and avoid subverting language

Ah, where would my life be without Internet memes? Certainly I’d have less fodder for blog posts.

Last week when the prime suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were revealed there was a spate of meme pics encouraging us all to “Remain calm and avoid islamophobia”. A noble sentiment to be sure. For all their apparent impotence in controlling the more militant and/or extremist factions within their religion, a majority of followers of Islam are neither terrorists or hateful toward America. However, some clarification might be in order.

Phobia: a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.

So, “islamophobia” would be a persistent, irrational fear of Islam leading to a compelling desire to avoid it. But irrational means “not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical”. So while I can understand and support the idea that we shouldn’t rush to paint Muslims as “to be avoided” in the aftermath of the bombings and subsequent revelations about the suspected perpetrators, would it really be irrational to do so?

My daughter is likely an arachnophobe. She won’t even go downstairs if she suspects there is a spider down there, in spite of all assurances that spiders in our area are seldom dangerous, easily avoided, and more than likely wanting to avoid her. Can I promise her 100% certainty that she won’t be harmed by a spider? No. But her reaction to them goes far beyond logic. I don’t like spiders either, but short of one crawling on my unprotected skin I don’t get worked up about them. I have no difficulty capturing them safely and transferring them outside. I just wouldn’t do it with my bare hands.

Is it irrational to decide all Muslims in America are terrorists and, when something bad happens like the bombing, immediately haul every last one of them in for questioning? Yes. Is it irrational to place Muslim extremists in general on our list of potential groups responsible? Perhaps, depending on the circumstances. Is it irrational to want to deport every Muslim because of the various incidents since and including the 9-11 attacks? Yes. Is it irrational to screen Muslims requesting residency or citizenship for terrorist ties? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But let’s look at it another way. Let’s compare the meme pics we saw popping up as soon as we ID’d the suspects to the meme pics we didn’t see in the wake of the bombing. We didn’t see any “Stay calm and avoid Tea-party-phobia” meme pics. And yet inferences were already flying within minutes that Tea Party members might be behind it based on…what, exactly? The date? That’s a pretty weak connection when a more obvious one is right there in the euphemistic name applied to the incident: “The Boston Marathon Bombing”. There were 27,000 participants in the Boston Marathon, and perhaps that many again in spectators and support staff. Crowds that size make terrorists (of any ideology) mouths water. It’s fairly obvious that the date was a minor detail compared to the event itself, and yet some people’s thoughts immediately went to the Tea Party.

So it’s telling that we didn’t see the “Islamophobia” meme pics immediately after the bombing, even though a large portion of bombings and attempted bombings world wide are connected to Islam, yet we did see a rush to blame the Tea Party in spite of a distinct lack of bombings or attempted bombings connected to the group. So tell me where the irrational fear is in this example? If it’s irrational to suspect Muslims, then what is the next adjective beyond “irrational” to apply to those rushing to blame the Tea Party? Delusional?

Am I saying we should have suspected Islam immediately? Certainly not. A rush to judgment is never warranted in the lack of evidence. Had any groups claimed responsibility for the bombing then there would have been a decent reason to start thinking that way. But none did. There is no reason for anyone to suspect anyone (or exclude anyone) until there is conclusive evidence. Nor am I saying there is reason to immediately respect Islamic extremists the next time there is a bombing.

In fact I’m not even really saying “Shut the heck up until we absolutely know something”, though that’s not a bad idea at all.

What I’m saying is that both phobias and prejudices exist, and we should use the terms correctly if we’re going to counter them effectively. Yes, there probably were those who immediately began ranting about “those %*#$ Muslims are out to kill us all and we should kick them out of the U.S. of $#&^-ing A while we still can!” They are prejudiced, and possibly bigots. But phobic? I don’t know. Do they feel an urge to turn and run if they see a Muslim? Would being in a room of Muslims make them break into a cold sweat, hyperventilate, and start looking for the door? If not, they’re probably not Islamophobes.

The key word here is “fear.” Fear and hatred, though they often share company, are not the same thing. Nor are fear and opposition, or fear and dislike, or fear and disapproval. My daughter does not hate spiders. She has never once suggested I should just kill them. Her fear is irrational, and she knows it, but she doesn’t blame the spiders. I don’t disapprove of or oppose the existence of tight, enclosed spaces. But I do fear them, and I know it’s (mostly) irrational (I can’t give examples without implicating family).

Likewise, if “Islamophobia” were something a person could “avoid”, would that not, by definition, make it a rational choice? If by simply seeing a meme pic we could suddenly decide “Hey, you’re right. I can choose not to fear Muslims”, then by definition it’s not an irrational fear. Trust me, if I could have talked my daughter out of her arachnophobia she would have had me do so a long time ago. She doesn’t enjoy it at all, and would choose otherwise in an instant.

What is really going on here is a deliberate misapplication of a word (or suffix, really) in an attempt to mock, ridicule and shame an individual into changing a belief one feels is unacceptable. And that is a matter of opinion, over which rational, intelligent people can disagree, and yet one person is trying to end or avoid the debate without having it. They are, in a sense, saying “Your views are irrational, and therefore indefensible, and therefore there can be no discussion here.” And that in itself smacks of irrationality and fear. Psychiatrist, heal theyself?

This sort of treatment may have begun with the term “technophobe”. While there may well be documented cases of people incapacitated by panic attacks over using technology, it mainly grew to mean people with a dislike, distrust, or discomfort with technology. Far from a phobia. Perhaps a more apt term would have been misotechnologist. But no, we got “technophobe,” thus opening the door for other misuses of “-phobe”.

Like the term “Homophobe”. How many people do you know who would scream and run if a gay person walked into the room? How many people would become physically and emotionally unstable if they found themselves in a room full of homosexuals? Uncomfortable, perhaps, but if that’s the criteria, then I know quite a few NASCAR-phobes, drunk-o-phobes, Mormonophobes, executivophobes, Katy-Perry-Concertophobes, etc. No, discomfort does not even begin to describe the experience for the truly phobic when exposed to their particular trigger, and to imply otherwise is to make light of a very real, very serious problem.

I have been called a homophobe because I have reservations about altering established social structures, but I defy you to provide any other evidence. If mere political opposition constitutes a phobia, then I have friends who are gunophobics, richophobics, balanced-budget-ophobics, childophobics, religiophobics, etc. Don’t be throwing around labels unless you’re giving me the green light to do the same.

Or better yet, let’s just not go there. I certainly don’t want to. Let’s not twist words to demonize, ridicule, or trivialize our opponents. Let’s grant them some basic respect and benefit of the doubt that they may have some valid reasons for their positions. And even if we disagree on that validity, why can’t we just shake hands, shrug our shoulders, and still be friends? Or at least walk away without muttering invective under our breath. Stay calm and stop misapplying words. And if you can’t, at least stop complaining about how compromise seems so hard to find these days. It’s hard to find middle ground if someone has already dug a moat there.

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