In recent decades, it has become commonplace for political activists to accuse opponents of “homophobia,” “Islamophobia,” “transphobia,” and the like. In so doing, they are building on a medical tradition of diagnosing people with irrational fears as having a mental disorder.
However, properly speaking, the political use of the term “phobia” doesn’t match its medical meaning. Arachnophobia, the irrational fear of spiders, can serve as a concrete example of a true phobia. A sufferer of arachnophobia will be terrified in the presence of a harmless spider, even though he knows it poses no threat. Away from the spider, he will readily agree that fearing the harmless spider is not rational, and this self-awareness is a necessary condition for diagnosing arachnophobia.
If a man erroneously believes that a particular species of spider possesses a powerful venom and is therefore a threat to him, this person is merely misinformed, not mentally ill. On the other hand, if a man suffers from an irrational fear of harmless spiders, and refuses to believe anyone who tells him they are safe, the man may indeed be mentally ill, but the criteria for arachnophobia are not met.
The misuse of medical terms in aid of political demagoguery blights the political landscape and creates yet another block between the genuinely mental ill and treatment. Anybody who sincerely argues against a religion or unusual sexual practice cannot, by definition, be suffering from a phobia. To suggest otherwise is to ensnare us all in an unseemly web.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor.
Source: Morrison, James. DSM-IV Made Easy. New York: Guilford Press, 1995.