Part One: Xeno.. what?
Very few words in the English language start with ‘x’. Xylophone. Um, that’s basically it.
What is this scary, foreign ‘x’ word? (And more importantly, how do you pronounce it?)
I’m not embarrassed to admit I had to get to my second degree before I came across the term ‘xenophobia,’ and found myself asking these very questions. And so I’m not surprised when my fascinated and passionate rants on this subject are frequently met with blank stares, and finally, ‘Sorry, what is xeno…what?’
Well if you’ve used the term ‘scary’ to describe such unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible things as ‘big words,’ then you are already witnessing the aspect of the human condition that is xenophobia. In latin, literally, a fear of the foreign.
But normally we use xenophobia to refer to a fear of people from the outside, that is: foreigners. Or as we experience them in our daily lives, migrants.
Have you ever seen a group of people in your local community dressing differently, all speaking to each other in ‘their’ language, and felt a little intimidated?
But, conversely, when you go off on a holiday to Barcelona and speak English to your mates while enjoying a nice cold sangria at the local tapas bar, do you have any intention of intimidating anyone? Of hurting anyone, of manipulating or changing a community? You would probably still speak to your English-speaking mates in English if you all decided to stay there a little longer, maybe live there for a while, right? Still no mal intentions though. Now re-read the previous paragraph, and ask yourself why you felt intimidated.
That’s the mystery of xenophobia. A fear of something just because it comes from somewhere else. In itself, it’s unfounded. In fact, the more you think about it, it starts to sound a bit ridiculous.
But we do ridiculous things everyday for the sake of our social anxieties, or because of how we have been socially trained (‘socialised’) since birth. We sit a seat away from someone on the bus and don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street. We feel like we somehow understand someone better once we’ve found out they’re from South London or Cairo or Canada-and-not-the-US. Or when the place someone hails from is within the same national boundaries as the place we happen to have been born, we feel pride in their sporting achievements. We cry when they stand on the podium and accept that medal for ‘us.’
In short, we change our opinions and make assumptions because of the way our social minds work. We group and categorise. It is a way for our brains to efficiently understand the world. If we had to observe and remember absolutely every detail we came across, it would blow our minds. Putting the things and people we observe into groups helps us streamline this process. It is fundamental to our social psychology.
But like a lot of things we were built to do for good reasons, they can become problematic. Our desires for sugar, fat and salt were originally meant as survival instincts, to ensure we took in adequate nutrition. However, now that these are readily available (and we live within a capitalist society savvy enough to exploit these desires for monetary gain) this biological survival mechanism is creating widespread obesity problems that, ironically, are deadly.
Similarly, our desire to categorise our world can lead us to discriminate, harming individuals who happen to belong to certain groups, but who may or may not possess the negative characteristics we attach to that group. And our fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, perhaps also intended as a survival instinct, can lead us to attribute extremely negative and damaging stereotypes to people categorised as ‘foreign.’
The recent reaction to the horrific coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris are a case in point. Just as the Utøya gunman happened to be Christian, Steven Spielberg happens to be Jewish, and my childhood friend Annie’s parents happen to be Buddhist, many refugees fleeing Syria happen to be Muslim. Suddenly they have gone from being refugees, to Syrian refugees, to Muslim and terrorist refugees, and people are panicking about allowing them within our national borders.
But there is more to this panic than simply an issue of wrong categorisation or mis-attribution. In the next instalment, let’s try to unravel the complex system of factors that cause and fuel our xenophobia today…