Ideological xenophobia

Short version:

If xenophobia is fear of strangers, it pays for us to ask where in our lives other people seem strangest and most alien.

In the past, it was geographical and cultural otherness that unnerved us most and aroused our hostility.

But in this globalized age, we find people from other cultures — at least the cosmopolitan representatives of other cultures we tend to interact with — to be anything but strange.  To us, they seem like one of us. Cultural differences don’t bother us like they used to.

So where do we feel distance now? Where do we feel the most foreignness? Where do we most fear the unfamiliar?

I would argue the distance between worldviews is now the hardest to traverse.

And I would argue that the very forces that have made it easy to stand on the other side of the Earth make it difficult to understand a worldview antithetical to our own.

Consequently, our sharpest sense of otherness and greatest temptation to start othering people who differ from us is now aimed at worldview.

Let’s call this fear and hostility to people with other worldviews ideological xenophobia.


Long version:

Merriam-Webster defines xenophobia as “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”

Normally, strange and foreign applies to different geographies and cultures. These strangers were not like us, because they were from remote places with unfamiliar manners.

But today, in a global economy, where in urban centers cosmopolitanism prevails, where geographical distance is closed with telepresence and affordable high-speed travel, perhaps otherness is no longer geographical. We are used to cutting through superficial cultural differences, different speech patterns, different appearances, so that they no longer seem strange to us — as long as we are assured that they share a similar worldview.

It is a peculiarity of our time that it is actually easier for a person to cross oceans and stand on the other side of the Earth from our own native land than it is for us to learn to think from a perspective opposite of our own. It is now philosophical distance that is hardest to traverse, that creates the most unnerving communication barriers, and which makes people feel strange and threatening.

In this age, we must be vigilant toward new forms of xenophobia — the fear of people who are strange to us because they do not share our worldview.

This vigilance means listening out for the kinds of things traditional xenophobes said about people from other countries, but applied to other beliefs. “I just don’t trust people like that.” “Their beliefs are primitive.” “They are irrational.” “I can’t put my finger on what it is, exactly, but that person just seems weird.” “They threaten my beliefs and ideals.” “They need to either adopt our ways, or shut up, or go away, or face being forcibly pushed out.”

Fighting ideological xenophobia, of course, does entail automatically adopting, or celebrating or even tolerating every difference we find in everyone who ideologically differs from us. It only means not automatically rejecting it or condemning it differs from how we see things. Just as we learned that we had to push aside the discomfort of unfamiliarity and suspicion of other cultures so we could  understand them properly from the inside, the same is the case with other worldviews. If we take their strangeness or apparent threateningness at face value we will never understand them or be able to connect with them.

Traditional and ideological xenophobia share a single origin. It is the result insularity — of knowing only one way to live, think and feel, of being told one’s own way is the best and only good way, and being taught that other ways are worse and less correct. We’ve been on our guard against xenophobia in the forms that have plagued humanity in the past, but we have failed to catch the fact that one particular style of fighting xenophobia can become narrow, brittle and superficial, and can produce its own strange form of xenophobia, which sees as xenophobic any ideological Other who wishes to overcome xenophobia in other ways — deeper ways.


I think I might start defining ideologies as “xenophobic worldviews”. I’m using xenophobic, in the deeper (fear of stranger) sense of the word, of course.