Freedom of speech is our most important right, forcing us to bounce ideas around in the sunlight. Most important of all, free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution is what makes everything possible.
But it's being undermined in ways that many of us don't always notice. The danger is not always government censorship or institutional taboos. We've medicalized speech about certain subjects, so that speaking about them renders the speaker to someone suffering from a disease that must be treated. Robust, roisterous and even rude debate is forbidden.
Phobias, as in homophobia, Islamophobia and even Christophobia, have entered the canon of diagnoses. By linking criticism with a phobia, we deprive the speaker of his right to speak; by classifying him as having an emotional disorder, we deprive him of independent thinking.
We may be tempted to blame Freud for this malady malfunction, but that would be unfair and, worse, inaccurate. When Freud spoke of phobias, he referred to obsessive anxiety as a defense against repressed impulses. Books and plays, for example, now often depict a homophobe as being afraid of his own impulse toward homosexuality. This creates a motive of which the "patient" is not even aware. Such theories are popular but hardly scientific, and often such a diagnosis becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is aptly captured in a headline about a new book, "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Paranoia."
There were phobias, of course, before Freud wrote about them. In the 18th century, a phobia described an irrational fear, an aversion in the mind, rather than objective reality. In the public mind, phobia is inevitably linked with paranoia as a catchall psychological stigma. A paranoid person, we now know, may suffer a mental disorder, but he may be responding to his reality with a rational rather than an imagined basis for his behavior. Even paranoids can have enemies.
"The phobic imagination has risen alongside the therapeutic culture, which tends to interpret conflict and troublesome behavior through the medium of psychology," writes sociologist Frank Furedi in Spiked.com. "The diagnosis of phobia has become central to a therapeutic worldview that regards stress, rage, trauma, low self-esteem or addiction as dominant features of the human experience." In this way, public problems are reduced to psychological problems, as we look for "cures" instead of examining the social consequences of public policy.