On xenophobia

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: A fear of foreigners is a deeply irrational prejudice and the trigger for it, usually, is the proximity of difference. In other words, the closer some foreign practice or person, the greater the threat to any xenophobe. The irony is that we surround ourselves with difference everyday; for though a particular community might share some generally common trait it is not universal nor does it negate an infinite range of other differences that define each human being as unique.

On xenophobia

By: Gareth van Onselen

6 March 2013

At its heart any phobia is irrational. Nevertheless, it is worth interrogating the nature of such things, as rational understanding engenders empathy and, with that, tolerance.

A fear of foreign attitudes and people is often ‘justified’ by a focus on practice and belief; that is, a particular behavior or aspect of a person’s identity is cited as the cause of fear or prejudice. In truth, however, the proximity of that difference is the real trigger for any biased response.

No xenophobe loses sleep over how people behave in far off places but, should such difference threaten to encroach upon their more immediate universe, its closeness acts as a catalyst, quickly making real any latent bigotry. Most often, then, xenophobia manifests at the cultural coalface, where different communities interact and mix.

As with so much discrimination, its driving force is insecurity and the belief that any external influence might change ‘the way of things’. And so nationalism breeds xenophobia, as it emphasizes sameness over difference and fear over tolerance.

On closer inspection, though, rarely is any foreign attitude unique, merely an exaggerated or understated approach to common practice; if not, a variant on it. And so nothing stands to be lost. If anything, much is to be gained because diversity enriches life rather than impoverishing it.

One can quite rightly take issue with any practice that reduces freedom, rather than augmenting it, but such a concern is universal – the litmus test for any cultural practice, foreign or domestic. Applied exclusively to foreigners it constitutes a xenophobic attitude but as a general precondition for human solidarity it is a fair and necessary requirement.

The real irony, inherent to any xenophobic attitude, is that we each are foreigners, different and unique in some way particular to us; if not to some other far-off culture then to our very neighbours. That is a wonderous thing, the very raison d’être for compassion, tolerance and the dignity of self-worth.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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