Of Fear and Strangers

I received this via NetGalley.

What an absolutely remarkable book. It’s not quite what I was expecting – which was a history of, I guess, where xenophobia has occurred, and maybe it consequences. But more interestingly that that, this is a history of the very concept of xenophobia. It does use examples of historical xenophobia – of course it does; you can’t discuss what the word means without showing what it has looked like. But it’s more psychological and philosophical than I was expecting, as a way of getting to the guts of why humans can react so poorly towards strangers, and how we have tried to explain that to ourselves.

And the first thing I learned is that ‘xenophobia’ as a word is brand new. Like, end of the 19th century new. Makari goes through his whole journey of discovery about this – detailing what he read and what explanations he chased down – in what almost amounts to a thriller in terms of sudden clues popping up. This was the first hint that not only was this going to be fascinating information, but also that the style was going to keep me engaged and keep me ploughing through what otherwise might have been overwhelming, both intellectually and emotionally. This was also building on a very personal opening to the book: Makari outlines his own family’s experience of being “xenos” – strangers – descended from Lebanese ancestors, living in America, experiencing the dismissal of “Arabs” and wondering about his family’s place in the world. Being published in 2021, as well, and of course, the question of xenophobia and how “we” react to the “stranger” remains as tragically relevant today as it has been at any time in the past.

Part 1 explores “The Origins of Xenophobia” – where the word originates, how it was used to describe the so-called Boxer Rebellion in China – and therefore the ‘mad’ reaction of Chinese people to Westerners and all the ‘enlightenment’ they could bring. And then how the word was used in colonial contexts – xenophobia is a product of the inferior mind, because ‘they’ don’t understand what ‘we’ (colonisers) are bringing, and they don’t know any better than to be hostile! And then on through Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, flipping that idea of xenophobia around and showing how colonisers might be the scared ones… and then on into discussion of immigration. Sadly, that connects really early on with Jewish migration, and then of course the book leads into the Holocaust.

Part 2, then, explores “Inside the Xenophobic Mind.” I have neither philosophical nor psychological training, so this part both taught me many new things, and was also surprisingly approachable. Well, approachable in terms of understanding in general, although again confronting in some parts – like the experiments to train kids into having phobias to try and understand how such fears can develop… and also because some of the philosophical aspects definitely went over my head. So this section, too, made me think much more both about xenophobia as a concept but also about how different groups have approached the desire to understand it – external or internal reasons, love and projection and can we ever truly know someone else… and so on.

I would heartily recommend this to people who are interested in why humans act the way they do, for people seeking an understanding of the way the world is and has been; whether you’re an historian or not, whether you’ve knowledge of psychology or not, Makari makes difficult concepts relatively straightforward to grasp. And he doesn’t claim to be able to explain all of humanity, but the book does suggest a range of ways that we might try to think about ourselves, and our neighbours, and our leaders… and think about why we react the way we do. And that can only be a good thing, right? In fact, I think that as many people as possible should read this book, so that we can be much better at talking about these things and be a little less defensive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: