Learn Something New Every Day!

Topic X: Xenophobia

Topic X:  Xenophobia*

We all know about phobias.  As a psychological term, phobia means an irrational fear of something specific, but that something is usually innocuous as well as something that others maybe do not welcome but accept as part of life.  I bet you recognize at least some of these fears, even if you did not know what to call them:  

  • Acrophobia (Fear of Heights)
  • Agoraphobia (Fear of Open Spaces or Crowds)
  • Arachnophobia (Fear of Spiders)—and a fun movie!
  • Chionophobia (Fear of Snow)—even without calling it a Polar Vortex
  • Claustrophobia (Fear of Confined Spaces)
  • Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark)
  • Dentophobia (Fear of Dentists)
  • Ophidiophobia (Fear of Snakes)—not just those on a plane
  • Cynophobia (Fear of Dogs)—not just pitbulls
  • Zoophobia (Fear of Animals)—for animals, might this be a fear of zoos?
  • Phobophobia (Fear of Phobias)

If afflicted with one of these or the dozens of other phobias that are out there, most people seek help.  At least they do if the fear is taking over their lives.  A mild case of acrophobia may mean that you will never walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, but you can probably live with that.  The same with never taking elevators, if you have claustrophobia.  But if you are an agoraphobic and you never leave your apartment, you may seek some help.  Certainly, I would think, if you are afflicted to some degree with any of these phobias, you would not typically showcase it in society if you can help it, and you do not encourage your children and loved ones to practice your fearful behavior as well. 

But then we have to consider the worst fear of all:  XENOPHOBIA.  At first, this word typically makes me think of science fiction, makes me imagine worlds where there are literal aliens of which to be fearful. Ripley’s hatred for the alien that destroyed her ship and was trying to take over her body did not seem irrational.  Nor does the fear or hatred of the Borg in Star Trek in both the Alpha and Delta Quadrants.  In fact, this fear of literal aliens is at the heart of many of the early science fiction movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  (I’ve written about that fear of invasion before.) But how apt is this view of xenophobia to our everyday life, to the other phobias that are part of modern society?

The literal definition of xenophobia makes this irrational fear sound like all the other phobias.  The basic definition says xenophobia is a fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of anything foreign, strange, or alien.  At first this does not sound so bad, until you notice the word hatred.   That’s a charged word that links xenophobia to its synonyms:  racism and prejudice.  Thus xenophobia must be the most generic version of the phobias listed under the sub-heading “Prejudice and Discrimination,” like homophobia and Islamophobia.

Unlike experiencing other phobias, people afflicted with xenophobia do not often seek help to rid themselves of this irrational fear.  No, they convince themselves that their fear is the norm, and—worse yet—their words and deeds teach by example, thus perpetuating this fear to their children and loved ones.  From my view, it is xenophobia that is at the root of such society problems as hatred, discrimination, prejudice, racial profiling and hate crimes.  It seems that some level of xenophobia is what makes people cross the street to avoid the homeless, complain when people of different colors or cultures move into their neighborhoods, or bully others for their appearance or gender or some other silly superficial thing.  Instead of the love of money being the root of all evil, my bet is on xenophobia taking on that role.

As we enter 2014, my hope for the world is that xenophobia would be abolished.  That those afflicted with hate and fear of anything that is strange or different from themselves would realize that those feelings are irrational and counter-productive, that they would overcome that fear and live a life dictated by the antonyms of xenophobia:  tolerance, acceptance, patience, forbearance, and open-mindedness. The words and deeds associated with these qualities would be worthy of teaching to our children, of perpetuating throughout the world.  It is not a new idea that we should be teaching tolerance and acceptance.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. shared this goal in his “Afterword” to the original edition of Free to Be. . . You and Me (1974):

“I’ve often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they’re on, why they don’t fall off, how much time they’ve probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on.  I tried to write one once.  It was called Welcome to Earth.  But I got stuck on explaining why we don’t fall off the planet.  Gravity is just a word.  It does not explain anything.  If I could get past gravity, I would tell them how we reproduce, how long we’ve been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution.  And one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity.  I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade.  A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive.  It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it.” 

Creating a world of love, caring, understanding, kindness, tolerance, a world devoid of xenophobia, is up to us.  We need to imagine and then create such a world, starting with our homes and neighborhoods.  Let’s help everyone have a happy new year.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”   Bertrand Russell

“I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous orsavage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.”   Michel de Montaigne

“Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that devils us.  It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue, because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen ti what its timpani is saying.”   Anna Quindlen

“I was raised to believe that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.  And that’s how I operate my life.”   Oprah Winfrey

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”  Ralph W. Sockman

“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”   Kahlil Gibran

“The highest result of education is tolerance.”   Helen Keller

“Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.”   Robert Green Ingersoll

“Tolerance is the oil which takes the friction out of life.”   Wilbert E. Scheer

We need to promote greater tolerance and understanding among the peoples of the world. Nothing can be more dangerous to our efforts to build peace and development than a world divided along religious, ethnic or cultural lines. In each nation, and among all nations, we must work to promote unity based on our shared humanity.”  Kofi Annan

“Tolerance is the positive and cordial effort to understand another’s beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them.”   Joshua Liebman

“Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.”   Helen Keller

BTW:  It was a challenge to decide upon a subject to discuss for the letter X.  What would you have written about?  I know very little about X-rays and xylophones.

Comments on: "Topic X: Xenophobia" (9)

  1. I share your wish for 2014. Great food for thought.

  2. Interesting topic. I have never heard about xenophobia! It is so scary, and how hard is to live it 😦 , I myself have strong fear of height also have Aqua phobia. One of my goal in 2013 was to resolve these two but couldn’t, unfortunately! I hope to solve this problem in 2014 🙂

  3. That is a great wish for 2014, Patti, and thank you for sharing Vonnegut’s afterword. I had never read it before. When I taught fifth grade, I used to wish I could take my students on a long road trip across the country so they could see that their small, rough, inner city neighborhood was only a small part of a much bigger world, and that they weren’t stuck there. Most of them never left their tiny worlds except through what they saw on television..

    • Happy New Year. I do love Free to Be. . . You & Me, including KV’s “Afterword.” Wanting to show students more of the world is a a great goal–and it is not limited to elementary school. Many of the college kids I see in Bakersfield have never been out of town either. I loved taking them on field trips–Manzanar, Museum of Tolerance, etc.–to help them see a bit more of what’s out there.

  4. […] to implore you to admit it would be a challenge to write topics for such letters as K, Q and X.  But then I realized I never wrote about Topic K.  Oops.  I have about a week until the […]

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