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.
There is some irony here in the case of homophobia. Not so long ago, homosexuality was considered a medical disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. But when homosexual activists came out of the closet, arguing against the medical diagnosis, the psychiatrists in 1973 voted against defining homosexuality as a disease. Now it's the homosexual activists themselves who seek to medicalize the aversion of homosexuality, suggesting that those who disdain the homosexual lifestyle suffer a mental disorder called "homophobia." Such a critic is, in the vocabulary of moviemaker Michael Moore, a "sicko."
In some quarters, anti-Semitism has become "jewphobia," which reduces hatred of Jews to an irrational impulse, a medical problem, rather than bigotry with a long public history. Passengers on a U.S. Airways flight who expressed apprehension over the behavior of Muslim clerics who ostentatiously recited prayers and shouted provocative slogans as they boarded the plane are accused of "fear and prejudice" by an Islamic advocacy group, which sued them for their caution. The very real and universal fears in the wake of September 11, when zealous Muslims crashed several airliners to punish "infidels," are brushed aside. Metaphorical phobias are an appeal to self-censorship and demand limits on free speech. An accusation of Islamophobia restricts legitimate debate over what can be criticized. It obscures distinctions between intelligent observation and irrational prejudice.
Phobia dictionaries include everything from the ridiculous to the subliminal. My favorite is arachibutyrophobia -- fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth. But we should all be wary of laliophobia, the fear of speaking out. By diagnosing legitimate issues of public dissent and disagreement as phobic disorders, we all run the risk of suffering from that. And beware of peanut butter, even with jelly on a slice of Wonder bread.