A note on antipathy and phobias

6 september 2013 | In Crime Hate Crime Moral Psychology Psychology | Comments?

Bah! Semantics!

It would seem that semantics is the least interesting aspects of things like islamophobia and antisemitism. This may well be the case, but if you’ve ever happened to investigate into anything, you know that the least interesting aspects of things are often quite crucial. While linguistic-turn era early 20th century Oxbridge-type philosophy is often caricatured as claiming that semantics is everything that matters, the more accurate claim made is that semantics matters too.

It is, at the very least, noteworthy that while antisemitism and islamophobia are treated as examples of the very same attitude (a negative one) with a variation in object (Jewish people/Muslims), they take different lingusitics forms even on the attitude side. Why use ”anti-” in the one case, and ”phobia” in the other? Are they interchangeable? It’s clear that they are often used as interchangeable, but this may hide an important aspect: There’s a distinction at work which connects to different modes of negative attitudes and behavioral responses. These modes afford different types of explanatory schema.

Aggression and Aversion

The word ”anti-” connects to aggression, the word ”phobia” to aversion. These are both negative reactions, but aggression is connected to the behavioral response of approaching the object, while phobia is connected to the behavioral response of withdrawal. If I have a fear of spiders, I don’t primarly seek them out, even to kill them, unless there’s another way to avoid them. I’m sure there are people who are anti-spider, and will seek spiders out to kill them, but the groups of spider haters and spider fearers are probably just barely overlapping. The relation between fear and hate is not straightforward. Because of this, fear-based explanations of acts of aggression are incomplete at best. You always need a further explanatory step to show why this instance in particular provoked an aggresive response, rather than an act of avoidance.
If the semantics of ”phobia” and ”anti-” reflects this distinction, it suggests that the common perception is that Jewish people are attacked as a consequence of anti-semitism, whereas muslims are avoided as a consequence of islamophobia. Of course, both groups suffer from both types of responses.

Two problems

The distinction between aggression and avoidance is further of interest as they neatly divide the problems of racism up in two piles, it’s relatively easy to target aggression with the use of criminal law, but not so easy with avoidance (Discrimination laws targets a very limited set of the latter). Yet avoidance is probably the greater problem, as it is likely to account for most inequalities and as much of the perpetuation of antipathies between groups as the aggression does.

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