26.10.15

WE NEED MORE PROBLEMATIC PEOPLE.

"Problematic" is a favorite term of the Perpetually Aggrieved, who generally use it to mean "I don't exactly agree with what you just said, but I don't want to do the work of rebutting it."  Thus do some words get ruled out of bounds, and some speakers disinvited.  Most recently, the Perpetually Aggrieved at Cardiff University decided that second-wave feminist Germaine Greer was too, well, reactionary, to speak there.  (I wonder if any of the snowflakes know that the Great Western Railway engine shed in Cardiff was called Canton.  The horror!)  Ms Greer's sin is in resisting thinking of trans-sexuals as women.  That's a strange place for the author of The Female Eunuch to be.
Greer has described trans women as men ‘who believe that they are women and have themselves castrated’. Which has the benefit of being factually correct — they’re men, they want to be women, they get castrated — but it’s nonetheless a speech crime to the PC.
If these be micro-aggressions, make the most of them!


Ms Greer also called B.S. on the use of "-phobia" as a way to cut short discussion. "I didn't know there was such a thing [as transphobia]. Arachnaphobia, yes. Transphobia, no."  The short affirmation: Silly, made up words. "Anyone who thinks [enter buzz word here] is in any way unacceptable can be automatically smeared as being both mad and bad simply by trotting out this silly, meaningless word."  There are longer ways to reach the same conclusion.  Here's Trouble and Strife, about to go down a culture-studies rabbit hole.
‘Ism’ words and ‘phobia’ words name essentially the same phenomenon: the unjust treatment of one social group by others. But they frame that phenomenon in very different ways, as we can see if we consider what ism and phobia mean in the language more generally.

Words ending in –ism most commonly denote systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, communism, nationalism, Buddhism, surrealism). Terms like sexism andracism were also intended by the radicals who coined them to refer to systems—organized social systems of dominance and subordination. Though they are often used now to mean just ‘prejudice or discrimination based on sex/race’, that is a liberal watering-down of their original meaning. In the radical framework, prejudice is not the cause of systemic oppression but a consequence or by-product of it. If you are going to oppress your fellow humans—exploit them, abuse them, disregard their needs and rights—then you have every reason to buy into the belief that they are Other, inferior and deserving of unequal treatment.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly denote clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it means a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a serious threat triggers a pathological response—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger–in certain phobic individuals. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but there is less emphasis on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more emphasis on the idea of aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia and transphobia thus carry a strong implication that the root cause of the oppression they name is the pathological fear and loathing felt by some individuals towards a certain minority group.
Despite going deep into the rabbit hole, the author emerges with a sensible conclusion.
The progressive/liberal position is like a mirror image of the conservative one: whereas the conservative is revolted by queer/trans people, the progressive/liberal is revolted by the conservative’s homophobia/transphobia: she is morally disgusted by the moral disgust she attributes to others, and the strength of her disgust becomes a claim to the moral high ground. (‘You have upset me, therefore I am right’.) As Marina S. says, it is impossible to argue with this: moral disgust is instinctive and visceral, beyond any challenge based on rational argument.
Yes, better to say "problematic" and move on. To do so, though, is unlikely to convince anyone not already convinced.
Suggesting that any judgment you disagree with must stem from ‘phobia’—that it is not a question of your opponent having different principles or values, but is simply an expression of their irrational fear and loathing—is a way of making their position appear illegitimate without actually having the political argument. It is using language to silence views that you do not want to hear or engage with.
Precisely. We could even add a few words to the "micro-aggression" poster. "Problematic." Micro-aggression. [noun]+"phobic." Micro-aggression.  Toughen up, buttercup.

Talking Philosophy deconstructs "-phobic" further.
Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.

Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.

Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.

Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have  pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.
No doubt, among the Perpetually Aggrieved are people who would describe "correct moral view" as "problematic." But to deny coherent beliefs of any kind is to produce incoherence.  At the same time, the article notes that distinguishing a rational objection to a practice from an uninformed prejudice against a practice (whether it's Islam or unconventional sexuality or anything else) isn't easy.

The way to deal with a controversy, though, is to engage it, not to problematize it.

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