Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fear of Fear

Dictionary.com has declared "xenophobia" to be the Word of the Year. I think it's a good choice. If we take the two big spikes in look-ups that Dictionary.com cites to explain the choice, we can see that both came at a time when a populist backlash against the elites needed to be reinterpreted as a pathology in the population. There wasn't anything wrong with the elites, it had to be made clear, there was something wrong with the people. Ordinary people, it was said, are irrationally afraid of "people with backgrounds different from their own".

And this fear, it is usually implied, makes them bad people. It makes them less compassionate of others. At bottom, then, the rise of the word "xenophobia" marks a doubled othering: first "foreigners" are othered by ordinary people, and then ordinary people are othered by the elites. In fact, the fear of others marks a fault line (let's play the pun: a "line of blame") within the "common people" themselves. "We" are turned against each other on the question of whether or not we fear "them".

I've always found the political "phobias" puzzling. We don't vilify people for their fear of flying or fear of spiders. We don't even hold agoraphobia against people, even though we might, as members of the "public", take a little offense at their anxieties about us. But xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia are a different matter. Here we confidently denounce the person who harbors the relevant fear. We do not grant them the right to be afraid, we might say.

In my view, we should take seriously the idea that xenophobia is an exaggerated fear of foreigners. In an important sense, it is "irrational" (just as flying is actually perfectly safe and spiders are perfectly harmless), since most xenophobes have perfectly safe encounters with the relevant "other" every day. But, in another sense, there really is something to worry about. (When I was a young man, I, too, took a wrong turn in an American city.) Certainly, if the xenophobe is worried about the pace of cultural change, then it is rational to worry about the rate of immigration. This worry becomes a fear once one comes to believe, as many xenophobes do, that the elites don't care about the effect of immigration on local neighborhoods. Or when, in a more paranoid variant, they come to think that the elites are actively trying to destroy local culture.

The best way to cure oneself of fear is to face it. This does not, however, mean that it is always a good policy to force people to face their fears. If you put an arachnophobe in a closed room with a spider you're probably just going to turn them into a claustrophobe as well. (I have no idea if that statement is psychologically valid, but you get the point.) The important thing here is compassion. We have to understand that we really are talking about something that is rooted in fear. Too often, I think, we think it is rooted merely in hate. But that's only a consequence of mismanaging fear. We often come to hate the things we fear.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You were already thinking it, I'm sure.) We seem at the moment to be very afraid of the fear of others—indeed, we are afraid, sometimes pathologically, of other people's fear of other people. This fear makes us hate the "xenophobe", who, ironically, is really just another Other. Maybe we need a word like phobophobia, the fear of fear. And then, maybe, we need to face that fear courageously. Perhaps we need to be as accepting of the existence of people who fear strangers as we are of the strangers themselves. Perhaps we need to face our fear of phobia.


Presskorn said...

I guess there are two important disanalogies between xenophobia and, say, agoraphobia: (1) Agoraphobia is politically inconsequential while xenophobia is politically consequential – agoraphobics do not protest that open town squares should abolished etc. – and that (2) agoraphobics openly acknowledge the irrationality of their fear – they undergo therapy or carry a pill of Valium etc.

These two disanalogies, I think, underlie a good bulk of the elitist critique of xenophobia, since the elitist critique may exactly be expressed by saying: Really, xenophobia IS like agoraphobia, yet it is allowed to be politically consequential and these stupid members of the public crowd do even acknowledge their irrationality etc.

However, on another interpretation – an as it were conservative Wittgensteinian interpretation – these disanalogies show that they are not really phobias in the same sense. If “our” language games of politics do register an at least contested connection between xenophobia and politics (while they acknowledge no connection what so ever between agoraphobia and politics), then that shows an important conceptual difference which cannot be ignored by complaining about the stupid crowd.

I am undecided between these two interpretations, but I think your post brings out something important in comparing xenophobia and other things that carry the name phobia.

Thomas said...

An important difference is that agoraphobes will often identify themselves as such, whereas people don't call themselves xenophobes. The "elite" move is precisely to take an ordinary person's political view and "diagnose" it instead of engaging with it. The main point of my post is that the elitist fails to follow through on it by showing the sufferer compassion.

Also, it should really be kept in mind that the same person that denounces transphobia will often believe that gender dysphoria should be "accommodated". Interestingly, neither denunciation nor accommodation are really forms of engagement, and I think this is really the essence of the elitist position. It's a refusal to engage with actual political interests, a refusal to acknowledge "the other" as member of the polis.

Elites who are in favor of immigration are often mainly being generous about the "Lebensraum" of others. The people who are likely to move into their own neighborhoods are also likely to be altogether less "foreign" to them. Here it's important to keep in mind that elites are also typically cosmopolitan. Cultural differences are more, let's say, "ornamental" among the wealthy than among the poor.