On one not-so tangential aspect of the hot and largely empty debate on M-103, the anti-Islamophobia motion that’s grinding the ceaseless gears of Twitter and edifying the House of Commons I’d like to lodge a caution. It comes with the very term at the centre of the squall: Islamophobia. As a suffix, phobia has been getting more than a workout in recent years, and has long since wandered away from its stable connotation as an irrational but real fear of certain conditions (acrophobia, claustrophobia), insects (arachnophobia for spiders, apiphobia for bees) and animals/reptiles (bovinophobia, ophidiophobia). These phobias, if I might borrow the jargon of our day, are uncontested. They produce instant and reflexive responses of anxiety and fear, and depending on the depth of the phobia with the person afflicted, can have most consequential effects. Wasps are one of mine — they put me on full DEFCON 1 mode. Reality TV is another.
However settled and utile the term may be in its original and clinical understanding, it becomes very much a semantic free-floater when lifted from its root and applied to circumstances that defy definition, and are both immensely subjective and more often than not bend to the rhetoric of partisans than the rulings of medical science. The first thing to note about any of the current “phobias” around which, for example, the much labouring social justice class has produced so fine a literature, is that they, none of them, refer to a discrete, specifically identifiable, unarguable object.