Counterphobic vs. A Healthy Fear

September 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Do you know the term counterphobic?” the professor asked. This was in an undergrad sociology class in the early sixties. He was talking about some work he’d done for a marketing research company (“I’m not proud of it, but I was very young and very broke”). They wanted to know about the typical user of some product.

Counterphobic is a term coined in 1939 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel, and unless you were up on trends in Freudian theory, you’d have no idea what it meant. We weren’t and we didn’t.

The professor tried again. “It’s like someone who’s muy macho.” In 1963, to a roomful of White, mostly Jewish, mostly middle- or upper-middle class 20-year olds, macho wasn’t much more helpful than counterphobic.

He tried again. “You know, a Camel-smoker type.” Were we aware of the social-psychological differences between people who preferred one cigarette to another? We were not.

I’m not sure if the professor ever did get the concept across, but I was reminded of that moment today when I saw this tweet.

Turns out the people dying from covid are old or sick or both. How many 
of you pussy’s [sic] got played ? and who’s going to get played the next time.

I doubt that Adam Carolla smokes Camels, and in any case the Camel “brand” is no longer what it was a half-century ago (when it would have been called the Camel “image”). But he is the walking, talking, tweeting definition of counterphobic. He refuses to recognize a real danger and moves towards it rather than away. And he equates this response with a machismo-like masculinity.

He is not alone. For many on the right, the mask has become imbued with notions of both politics and gender. It’s not that the anti-maskers oppose the general idea of protecting themselves and others. That’s their main justification for their guns. But guns are almost inherently macho. Even as protection, they work by allowing the gunslinger to dominate other people.  But the symbol does not have to be inherently macho. Industrial hard hats have no intrinsic message of domination; they are purely protective. Yet for the past half-century, they have carried the same political and gender symbolism as guns. Nobody is accusing people  who wear hard hats of being pussies.

I wonder what the macho anti-maskers make of professional athletes, who seem quite willing to cooperate with the protective measures the leagues have imposed. The athletes are probably well aware that even young and otherwise healthy people who get Covid-19 and suffer only mild symptoms may yet have long term heart or lung damage. Some may call that attitude of caution a matter of pussies being played. Others think of it as “a healthy fear.”

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