Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia

Image of Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia
Release Date: 
September 14, 2021
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“show[s] us the panoply of underpinnings (psychological, sociological, philosophical, and biological) that support this fear of the new, the different, and the ‘other.’”

From a two year old who experiences “stranger danger” reactions to anyone but her mother, to the feeling which in part sustains the closing of our borders to immigrants, xenophobia is a concept that cannot be avoided nor as yet prevented. Defined as the fear and hatred of strangers, foreigners, or of anything that is strange or foreign, it has been at times seen as almost universal. Yet at other times it is viewed as the distorted concept held by only the uninformed and narrow minded to justify racism and prejudice.

George Makari in his book Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia traces the history of the concept with its large number of permutations and alterations through the centuries. In a scholarly way he documents how the underlying idea (and eventually the word) began several centuries ago then mutated with the changing of societal perspectives.

Illustrating the paradoxical assumptions about foreigners, in some languages “stranger” automatically means “enemy.” Other cultures however see strangers as “guests” who are to be fed, housed, and celebrated.

Contact with a stranger poses a challenge to human beings. Who is it?  Why is he/she here? What does he/she want? Does he/ she pose a threat? Human beings feel comfortable with sameness, predictability, and a narrow vision of what is safe rather than risky. Novelty, strangeness or difference disrupts this comfort zone and thus can potentially induce fear that can be amplified or minimized in any given individual.

Beyond an individual personality trait however, there can be a national xenophobia of foreign nations, cultures, religions, or peoples. To some degree this becomes useful during war or combat as the “other” are seen as not only different but flagrantly dangerous, non-human, and worthy of being eliminated or killed.

The author documents how unscrupulous leaders or governments can use xenophobia as a reason for confinement, war, or catastrophic purges of specific groups (e.g. Hitler and the Jews, Americans and the Japanese during WWII, the Chinese and the Buddhists, radical Muslims and Westerners as well as many others.) Unfortunately, it is far too easy to describe a certain racial or religious group with a stereotype. Once a particular stereotype is labeled with certain traits, many thought leaders will continue to reinforce the stereotype that only serves to emblazon those ideas on the collective consciousness. It is far more difficult to describe individuals in a nuanced way that contradicts the existing stereotype. Some stereotypes are so rigid and pervasive that they become part of the fabric of social consciousness even if such categorization is blatantly untrue in any given individual.

The text is liberally dotted with interesting photographs, pictures, and diagrams illustrating the people that the author focuses on. The author’s scholarship is evident in the detailed descriptions of people, places, and events that become the history of this idea. While admiring his scholarship      , it also can make for dense reading line by line. It is a book that in places can be skimmed to understand the author’s perspective, but to do so is to miss the richness of his writing.

Many readers will wish naïvely that a history of xenophobia will end with methodologies to counteract both the idea and its problematic sequelae. What this book does, however, is show us the panoply of underpinnings (psychological, sociological, philosophical, and biological) that support this fear of the new, the different, and the “other.”