Of Fear and Strangers

From The Wall Street Journal:

George Makari’s concern with xenophobia goes back to a childhood trauma. To escape from sectarian conflict, his French-speaking Christian parents had fled their native Lebanon and settled in the U.S., where Dr. Makari was born. In 1974, at the age of 13, he was taken on a family visit to Beirut. Suddenly, the travelers found themselves caught in the midst of what would become a civil war. “To me, it was bizarre,” Dr. Makari recalls in “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia.” He continues: “All these bewildering sects were far more alike than different. All were Levantines who spoke the same dialect; all loved the same punning humor, devoured the same cuisine, abided by strict rules of hospitality, and approached any purchase as a three-act play: bargain, stage a walk-out, then settle. They were quick with proverbs and went agog when Fairuz sang. And yet, subtle distinctions in their identities now meant life or death.” It was an experience that would haunt a young George Makari.

Today, Dr. Makari, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of Weill Cornell’s DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry, sees xenophobia as a threat to social peace, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe and North America, where recent political convulsions have been driven by a bristling hostility toward strangers and outsiders. Dr. Makari is clear that a lot of different impulses are often conflated here: “ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or Islamophobia.” What might they have in common? “Is there any one term specific enough to not be meaningless, while broad enough to allow us to consider whatever common strands exist between these phenomena?” He thinks that there is: xenophobia. And if all these disorders are variants of the same affliction, then perhaps they have the same cause and might be susceptible to the same treatment.

Dr. Makari traces the invention of “xenophobia” to the 1880s, when psychiatrists came up with a variety of “phobias” apparently caused by traumatic experience. “Hydrophobia”—a fear of water—was an old term for rabies. There followed a rash of other phobias, from claustrophobia to my personal favorite, phobophobia—the fear of being frightened. (One commentator remarked that the number of phobias seemed limited only by an Ancient Greek dictionary.) Xenophobia entered a medical dictionary in 1916 as a “morbid dread of meeting strangers.”

Like many psychiatric classifications, early definitions of xenophobia covered too much ground. Perceptions of the disease seemed malleable. What began as a psychiatric diagnosis would soon be used to describe the fury with which colonized populations often turned on settlers. These settlers, in turn, would be accused of xenophobia by the critics of colonialism, as waves of migrations in the years leading up to World War I provoked fears of a loss of national identity.

In the U.S., three confrontations between different segments of the population proved formative. The first pitted the Puritans, who were themselves refugees from religious persecution, against Native Americans. The second was the forced migration and enslavement of millions of Africans by descendants of the country’s European settlers. The third was provoked by the migrants, first from Europe, then from Asia, who arrived after the Civil War largely for economic reasons.

Dr. Makari notes that in 1860 60% of the white population in the U.S. was of British origin, while 35% were broadly classified as German. By 1914, after 20 million immigrants had passed through American ports, 11% of the white population had British roots, 20% German, 30% Italian and Hispanic, and 34% Slavic. The settled sense of identity enjoyed by established white American Protestants was threatened. There was, in particular, a panic about Chinese immigration, even though the number of arriving Chinese was relatively small. This led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers. In 1892, 241 lynchings were recorded in America. Two-thirds of the victims were black; the remaining third were mostly Chinese and Italian. In 1908, the Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked: “Is it a ‘yellow peril,’ or ‘black peril,’ or perhaps, after all, is it not some form of ‘white peril’ which threatens the future of humanity in this day of great struggles and complex issues?”

. . . .

One idea is that there is something fundamentally human here. Early human groups competed for territory. All intruders were enemies. The more you feared and hated outsiders, the better your chances of survival. So xenophobia bestowed an evolutionary advantage. Sports fans are simply expressing inherited tribal instincts. Even babies are frightened by a strange face.

This is a popular one-size-fits-all explanation. But it is problematic. For one thing, anthropologists do not agree that constant strife was the norm during the 95% of human history when small nomadic bands lived by hunting and gathering. The Victorian anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor said that early humans would have had to choose between marrying out or being killed out. When Europeans in the early 19th century made contact with surviving communities of hunter-gatherers, different bands were observed forming marriage alliances and trading partnerships that generally kept feuds from raging out of control.

. . . .

In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, however, a better explanation of mass hatreds was needed. The orthodox theory in American psychology at the time was behaviorism, which explained habitual attitudes and responses as the products of conditioning: Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of a bell because they had been conditioned to recognize this as a cue for food. In the same sort of way, children are warned against strangers and so conditioned to fear others.

Less orthodox, but more influential in the long run, is the notion of projection. Each of us half-recognizes our shameful desires, infantile fears, aggressive impulses. Instead of dealing with them, we may accuse someone else of harboring those same feelings, cleansing ourselves by shifting the blame onto a scapegoat.

According to yet another analytic theory, the people most susceptible to collective paranoia are the children of strict and demanding fathers whom they feared and adored. Theodor Adorno, the lead author of the classic account “The Authoritarian Personality,” wrote that the typical subject “falls, as it were, negatively in love.” Cowed by the father-figure, he is masochistically submissive to authority and sadistically takes out his anger on the weak.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link, but PG doesn’t know how many clicks it can handle. He apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

7 thoughts on “Of Fear and Strangers”

  1. The problem is simpler and goes back to the dawn of time.

    It’s all about parasites

    Essentially, those societies that have been subject to parasites from strangers are more conservative and subject to xenophobia. Those that have not had to deal with parasites are more open and liberal.

    – Parasites include viruses.

    I suspect that the kids today, having to deal with COVID and wearing masks, will be more conservative growing up, less open to others.

    Death, Disease, and Politics | Dr. Randy Thornhill | The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast – S4: E:38

    What’s fun, is the guy is from UNM, my University.

    Jordan Peterson’s guest today is distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico, American entomologist and evolutionary biologist, Dr. Randy Thornhill.

    Dr. Thornhill’s research shines an enticing light on scientific areas that most people have never been exposed to. We come to understand and appreciate the importance of evolutionary biology in shaping our opinions, attitudes, and in many cases the decisions we make throughout our lives. Dr. Thornhill has authored and co-authored around 250 scientific publications, and a majority of his work has been cited in scientific literature over 35,000 times.

    Dr. Thornhill shares his findings on attractiveness including cryptic female choice, symmetry, carotenoid pigments, and the characteristics of attractiveness. They also cover Dr. Thornhill’s parasite-stress theory, the critical role that infectious disease plays in humanity, IQ, sex, religion, and conservatism.

    BTW, I’ve been watching so many podcasts on YouTube the past few months that the number of new bookmarks I’ve added to rewatch is staggering. I need to watch this one again.


    • I suspect that the kids today, having to deal with COVID and wearing masks, will be more conservative growing up, less open to others.

      Today’s identity politics isn’t coming from the conservatives.

      • Yes! That is a beautiful insight. Watch the episode and you will see what I mean.

        The people today never had to deal with systemic illnesses the way I did as a child. The past 20 or 30 years were astonishingly free of major infections. I think they stopped doing Polio vaccines in the 80s. So the college kids today were ripe for programming that made them hate everything and want to tear down society.

        When I mention “kids”, I’m thinking children and teenagers who have not been able to get vaccinated because of age. They are living in constant fear of infection from strangers.

        I saw this when the children of hippies became super conservative because their childhood was so fragile. Their parents chose to live in voluntary poverty. The kids never had a vote in that “life choice”.

        That was the theme of the 80s sit-com “Family Ties”. The parents were hippies, the children were conservative right from the start.

        I forgot to add this.

        Family Ties TV Show Opening Theme Season One 1982

  2. I don’t agree that children have to be taught “fear of strangers”. It’s a well-studied developmental stage, from undifferentiated interactions with all around them, to the discomfort displayed by children who are in the presence of those not closely related or well known to them (generally from around 7-10 months it first develops, until somewhere around 18-24 months).
    It’s a good thing that it develops; a child old enough to be mobile, who is not suspicious of strangers, would be at risk of harm. It’s a fear that inhibits wandering away from ones tribe/family.

  3. Tribalism was a survival trait going back to Lucy in tbe african savanna.
    Before, even.
    It’s tbe ape in us.
    It would be great to be able to say we’ve outgrown tribalism but it just ain’t so.
    It’s so ingrained that even in prosperous secure societies we go out of our way to invent ways to selfsegrate in mostly harmless ways (sports affiliation,choice of computer hardware or software, choice of reading entertainment) and not so harmless (politics, religious beliefs, melanin deficiency).
    Not going to change soon.
    In fact, the species might not survive it.


  4. For one thing, anthropologists do not agree that constant strife was the norm during the 95% of human history when small nomadic bands lived by hunting and gathering.

    99.99% of John Wayne Gacy’s interactions with others were cordial.

    Constant strife is a strawman.

    • Pretty much.
      Tribal violence is sporadic. After all, once you drive off or kill the targets, calm peace prevails.

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