A recent story in the New York Times (“A girl loses her mother in the jungle, and a migrant dream dies” by Julie Turkewitz, November 9, 2022) described the harrowing journey of a young mother and her 6-year-old daughter attempting to cross the Darien gap, a notoriously perilous route entering the Panamanian isthmus, as they sought asylum and refuge from the hardships that have befallen many of the citizens of Venezuela in the past 10 years. According to the author, there are currently over 103 million displaced people in the world and over 2.3 million people have been apprehended at the Southern border of the U.S. just this year so far. Due to several factors, wars, inflation, climate change, and the pandemic, the world is building toward a massive refugee crisis.
Beyond the financial, logistical, legal, and other challenges of assimilating so many refugees at one time mass migration confronts our psyches with “the problem of the other.” People here in the United States and the world throughout have witnessed a resurgence of reactionary social and political movements as a result. Slogans such as “America First” and paranoid ideas such as “the great replacement theory” reflect the extremism and isolationist tendencies triggered by these developments. But within the upheaval of such magnitude that is taking place, an interesting thing also is occurring. Confrontation with the foreignness of the immigrant/refugee is forcing us to confront in extremist reaction the foreignness that is emerging within our own kind.
As the political animus has approached a boiling point in this nation, I personally was reminded of that classic science fiction film, “The invasion of the body snatchers.” The faces and names remain the same but something deeply unsettling has changed in their personalities. When “the other” becomes the enemy amongst us an eerie, more malevolent feeling arises that threatens treachery and betrayal.
Sociological Aspects of Xenophobia
Xenophobia is defined as the fear, dislike, and/or hostility toward anything foreign to our sense of communal identity. The social conditions that contribute to its pervasiveness were studied when these concerns were stirred up during post-apartheid in the nation of South Africa. Findings reported that they include a fear of loss of social status and identity, threats perceived or real, changes in financial status, or an influx of immigrant populations (Mogekwu, 2005).
There are two fundamental perspectives by which xenophobia may be judged. While to the outsider, it represents intolerance, distrust, animosity, and divisiveness, for the “xenophobe,” it represents an appeal to the solidarity of the tribe, usually against a threat from an outsider. However, this emotion can also be aroused within a tribe or nation-state, as explained by Andreas Wimmer (1997), during times of increased social conflict elicited by societal threats to the downward mobility of certain groups. It is likely, therefore, that the vilification characteristic of xenophobia is greatest during these periods of societal change within those groups toward those identified as either foreign or who are imbued with qualities of “otherness” because of the proximity of social status that exists between them.
Psychological Aspects of Xenophobia
The psychoanalyst, Vamik Volkan, in his book, The need to have enemies and allies (1985), has posited that the self-preservational function of xenophobia in large groups and communities may be a manifestation of a more personal “instinct” to preserve a sense of self. Conflicts that arise between groups or nations thereby can elicit regressive changes in the psyches of its members that result in more primitive ways of bonding such as a heightened interest in mysticism, the creation of shibboleths, and a susceptibility to the proliferation of conspiracy theories.
Following the demise of the Nazi regime post-World War II, Theodor Adorno and his associates at Harvard University studied and developed a personality test known as the F Scale to measure authoritarianism and its correlate, fascist tendencies. Some of the traits associated with this dimension of personality include distrustfulness, priority given to the value of power and toughness, the rejection of introspection and self-criticism, religiosity and the susceptibility to superstition, and a tendency to submit to an authoritarian leader.
The point of these studies by Volkan and Adorno suggests that while it can be assumed generally that xenophobia is elicited by social conditions as I described previously, “the enemy” lies nevertheless within us. There is some experimental research demonstrating that distrustfulness can be exacerbated by the hormone, testosterone, but more importantly, xenophobia represents a state of mind or psychological condition, if you will, that arises because the self is constituted through its relationships and, unless you are a hermit, we live in a world with others.
“Hell is Other People”
This is the infamous quote by Jean-Paul Sartre taken from his 1941 play, No exit. What Sartre meant is that we cannot help but define and judge ourselves except through the projected thoughts, words, and actions of others toward us. Who we are as we identify ourselves is fundamentally created and perpetually influenced through our relations with others. It is the source for the basic emotions such as pride, shame, envy, and jealousy.
The experience of “otherness” may be explained by the psychological process defined as projective identification, a concept introduced by the psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. While projective identification gives us a sense of self, the experience of otherness arises when emotions of hostility or fear are projected onto an object or person such that that person becomes imbued with qualities that naturally elicit emotions that correspond with those qualities associated with danger or threat. In Faces of the enemy (1989) by Sam Keen, the author illustrates how this psychological phenomenon is used during wartime by nations to portray the enemy in the most vilified, contemptible way to arouse fear and animosity among its citizens.
Projective identification, as the source for xenophobia, contributes to racism, antisemitism, ethnocentricism, and all belief systems that vilify groups of people who threaten, whether real or imagined, the security and status of individuals subject to these kinds of experience. Perhaps nowhere is the tragedy of the vilification of otherness portrayed more vividly than by Shakespeare himself in “The merchant of Venice.” When Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, cries out in protest, “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog/And spit upon my Jewish gabardine/All for use of that which is mine own . . . Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Shakespeare is appealing for his audience to experience the deeply wounding effects that vilification of “the other” has on the sense of humanity of its victims.
Although projective identification has been posited as a source for the development of identity as well as objectification for the emotions of fear and alienation, it also serves as the means by which a person my evolve psychologically. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, posited that each person contains a structure in the collective unconscious known as “the shadow” that represents the parts of our psyches disowned yet necessary to integrate in order for us to grow as persons. In pop culture, the science fiction movie classic, “Forbidden planet,” was inspired by Jung’s psychology of personality development as the source for the monsters it created. Even modern phenomena such as flying saucers, Jung wrote, are a psychological projection of disowned parts of the psyche threatening to invade because the self seeks integration and growth.
Radical Alterity and the Encounter with the Other
Actions can be taken to remedy the problems of society that arise from xenophobia. Celebrating diversity, calling out bigotry, standing up for people who are harassed or marginalized, and supporting organizations that sponsor the rights of “others” all represent practical and effective ways to combat these issues. We may also, however, discover that the solution lies within ourselves when we examine in a more profound way what “otherness” means.
Martin Buber was a 20th century philosopher from Austria who had a deep influence on other philosophers and scholars concerned with man’s fundamentally relational nature. According to Buber, there are two ways that man construes his relationship with the world around him. The I-It (Ich-Es) experience represents how man has traditionally conceived his relationship as one of between himself and the objects of the world. The other, I-Thou (Ich-Du) represents the encounter with the other. When the world and the others in it are treated as objects man experiences his world as alienating, devoid of compassion and empathy. By contrast, when man encounters the other with the respect and dignity the other demands the human emotions of caring and love pour forth naturally. It is through this enlightened perspective that man comes to realize God in all things.
Following in the footsteps of his illustrious mentor, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century philosopher from Lithuania, probed the deeper realms of human experience in order to illuminate the nature of our relationship with existence. For Levinas, however, philosophy has been misguided ever since its historical origins from Ancient Greece by endeavoring to know the essence of truth and reality. “The other” for Levinas is an irreducible mystery, what he called “radical alterity,” not an object to be studied through logic and observation, nor to be understood through putative psychological processes. It is not meant to be understood at all. The pursuit of truth through knowledge must eventuate, as illustrated in Hegel’s dialectic, animus and conflict. The pursuit to probe further in order to understand, paradoxically and unfortunately, only takes us further from our quarry. Instead by suspending the endeavor to know or define, what Levinas calls “totality,” our infinite responsibility to the other naturally follows. So, for Levinas the solution to the problem of xenophobia is to acknowledge that our relational nature in the world entails an infinite ethical obligation to those with whom we share existence.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D