Understanding our fear of others

Mike Davis on a brilliant exposé of inhumanity 

Why do we fear strangers? This is the question at the heart of Makari’s brilliant study. Readers may think the term ‘xenophobia’ goes back centuries. In fact, it originates in the late 19th century. The author, a Lebanese émigré psychiatrist, lived through the civil war in Lebanon, which claimed the lives of 100,000 people. For him, modern Beirut is a warning: this is what happens when neighbours transform into strangers, strangers turn into enemies and society dissolves into a bath of fear and hatred. 

In an historical analysis ranging through numerous disciplines including economics, psychology, science, sociology and philosophy, Makari seeks to discover the reasons why xenophobia propels humans to the point of inhumanity and egregious crimes like the Nazi Holocaust. He takes us back to classical Greece and Rome, and onward to Europe and North America, and to Western colonial expansion’s justification as a benevolent effort to bestow civilisation on the East. 

He reminds us of the first modern Western empire, Spain. Preceded by seven centuries of Moorish rule, where Christians and Jews co-existed until Ferdinand and Isabella emerged to declare Spain Catholic and expel over 300,000 Arabs and 250,000 Jews. The Inquisition tested converts and was based on rooting out the ‘other’, creating an ‘us and them’, a hatred of aliens, to bind the new Spain together. The ‘discovery’ of the Americas and black and brown peoples unleashed mass murder in the new world. The birth of slavery, the demonisation of slaves as subhuman and forced labour killed millions while epidemics did the rest. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a central figure in emerging modern ethics, exposed the violence against strangers. In turn, he nurtured the early modern principles of egalitarianism and tolerance. 

Makari takes us through the Enlightenment, John Locke, universalism, the American Declaration of Independence (all are created equal – a self-evident truth) as counterweights. 

A decade after its invention, xenophobia became a powerful tool tied to science and race. It defined who was a primitive oriental, an easterner, and who was a civilised, occidental westerner. In this upside-down world, primitive hosts were mistreating the civilised immigrants. This served to exonerate the settler/colonist/missionary/trader from any crimes. The term was first used against the Boxers, the rebellious Chinese, resisting the British occupiers. Rapidly, the term was inverted.  

Barbarism was due to the inability to comprehend each other. It was also a cover for dispossession – of the Native American, Africans, all women. 

Makari tracks the growth of nationalism, nations bounded by a set of remembrances or even shared amnesias, alongside wilful acts of communal marginalisation. Along the way, drawing on his psychological approach, he provides pen portraits of all the writers referenced, giving the book a greater depth while enhancing our understanding of the gestation of their thinking. 

He draws on behaviourism to drill down to the origins of xenophobia. Studies in the US, his adopted home, figure centrally. Is this fear learned behaviour in the Pavlovian sense of conditioned reflex, or is it an irrational feeling? More the former, he argues. Along with fascinating reports of social experiments, he explores the term ‘stereotype’, snatched from the world of printing by Walter Lippmann, with its meaning altered to be used as an explanation of any generalisation about ethnicity, gender or nationality. 

Behaviourism created a powerful model for understanding intense fear that could latch onto a stranger. He analyses Richard Wright’s Native Son while echoing James Baldwin’s view that something was missing. Behaviourism may explain how some xenophobes are formed by the flight-or-fight reactions linked to the stranger, but more was at work – namely ideas, imagined fantasies, desires and beliefs.  

Therefore, cognitive relations needed to be understood. William James’s celebrated designation of the world as a “great, blooming, buzzing confusion” meant stereotypes helped people make sense of this overwhelming environment by simplifying, flattening and generalising. 

With a power to parrot the truth, stereotypes were hard to dislodge. These “cartoons in the head” were amplified by the birth of film, radio and photography. This prompts a foray into the world of Hollywood movies, with DW Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation and later Gone with the Wind foremost amongst many reinforcing racist stereotypes, justifying Jim Crow laws and the 1930 Hays Code which forbade depictions of interracial love.  

Makari explains that stereotypes did not address a critical element, namely the emotions. This prompts analysis of the Harlem Renaissance, with its rejection of degraded and debased stereotypes such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. 

The Second World War struggle against fascism was the spur to a different kind of film and literature, one not pandering to antisemitic and anti-Black stereotypes. Films like The Brotherhood of Man and Don’t be a Sucker attacked racial and nationalist stereotypes, stressing human features that united rather than divided different peoples.  

Makari then segues to Europe, picking up the concept of projection, the complex ambiguous realities that emanate from our own minds, to further explore xenophobia. Drawing on psychoanalysis, primarily Freud and Melanie Klein, with ideas of self-hatred, paranoia and sexual repression, he further probes the concept. The Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and others shed more light, focusing on fascism – “that group regression from civility to tribal barbarism”. These Marxist-influenced intellectuals alighted on the concept of the authoritarian personality – a mix of Marxism and psychoanalysis. The idea of harsh parental authority yielding submissive, masochistic followers, all too willing to follow charismatic leaders who found relief in sadistic attacks on the outsider. However, Adorno’s Marxist lens did not correlate to class. Dockers and fat cats equally succumbed to prejudice. Marx was wrong – it was all about authoritarianism, childhood and reproduction. 

Searching further for greater understanding, phenomenology and existentialism, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foucault and Fanon enter the frame.  

No study would be complete without contemporary reference. Brexit and the Trump presidency emerged from, and prompted new waves of, xenophobia. These were presaged in 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War’s global othering opened the door to multiple xenophobias.  

He concludes that xenophobia is not just a fear of culture or identity loss nor a product of economic distress. It takes different forms. Mild xenophobia – ‘other anxiety’ – can be modified by social meeting, mixing and integration. Overt xenophobia is harder to dislodge. Socialist appeals to working class unity or liberal espousals of human rights, while valuable, are not enough. A new humanistic value system is required. 

This is an eloquent and monumental study of the fears that drive hatred, prejudice, violence and war. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots and realities of modern xenophobia and how to combat it. 

Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia
by George Makari
Yale, £20

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