Transcending Fear, Ignorance, and Hatred

What are the roots of xenophobia? Why is it that “victims become victimizers”? How do the Black Lives Matter movements positively disrupt racist ideologies in the US?

These were but some of the intertwined questioned posed at Heribert Adam’s presentation entitled, “Comparative Xenophobia: South Africa, Europe, North America” hosted by the Institute for the Humanities at SFU, held on unceded Coast Salish peoples’ territories. Listening in on the course of the talk and ensuing discussion, I searched for a unifying framework to anchor the conversation. I may have missed it, if indeed there was one, though not necessarily for want of German-English cultural and linguistic understanding. There were plenty in the room who bridge both worlds, like Adam, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at SFU.

Adam addressed wide-ranging factors tied to the topic of xenophobia – which I’d point out has been summarized as one manifestation of group-focused enmity (gruppen-bezogenen Menschen-/Fremdfeindlichkeit). Through critiques of those who decry Germany’s ‘moral imperialism’ and supposed Tugendprahlerei or virtue-boasting (which so often accompanies economic opportunism (think: Iraq war)) to the downfall of the ANC, as the talk progressed, the realistic challenges in mounting such an investigation became ever apparent. For his efforts, Adam is due much credit in tackling these issues with little to no funding in the countries of South Africa, Germany, and Canada. That said, there were a number of omissions in his analyses, some of which hopefully had to do with time constraints. What I add to the dialogue makes no reference to his forthcoming publication as I’ve not read it myself. Please keep that in mind in reading what follows and consider purchasing the text for yourself.

First off, conceptualizing a ‘politics of fear’ and its ‘divide and conquer’ tactics – a specialty of neo-liberal ideology – asks for more than the sporadic application of psychoanalytic postulates. Comprehension of the underpinnings of ideologies or socio-political attitudinal constellations which reinforce isolation (Entfremdung) and alienation (Ausgrenzung) from constructed factions of society, from one another and, so, from ourselves through dehumanizing work, technological advance without accompanying ethical or moral regard, and other activities is most useful through a comprehensive theoretical lens. That is, in terms of the model’s ability to make sense of continued inequality, prejudice, discrimination, and so on. These interpretations do real work in that they might guide us through the complexities of empirical data or lack thereof. They then might offer up viable, lasting solutions.

Let’s add some context. Turning to the refugee crises, Adam mentioned a denunciation of a ‘rescue mentality’. Of course, we are moved to act, to desire to ‘rescue’ all our relations (see McFarland’s Identification with All Humanity). In finally drawing attention to long-standing intersecting issues of foreign-induced geopolitical strife, climate change, and oft-overlooked climate injustice, it is not so important whether the kindle for these humanitarian efforts be the motivating power of a particularly salient photo of a dead child washed ashore, like that of Alan Kurdi, or reports from individuals on the ground involved in daily struggles for safety and sanctuary. The manner in which we think and move to respond is incredibly varied and rests upon largely psychosocial and cultural ‘common sense’ understandings of how the world is and ought to work. It is thus the domain of the philosophical, the political, and the personal. It is open to all and all should be encouraged to partake and take action as decision-making elites and academics are certainly not immune to the polarizing influences of a hegemonic decree. Indeed, they frequently act as the bastions of ideology.

Time is a key factor in determining solutions for our current entangled crises. Decisions and policies passed now hold immense implications for the future well-being of the international community. This does not deny that bodies continue to wash ashore and fall on foot, day after day. This acknowledged realism might serve to mobilize, and organize, and motivate those in the academy and outside of it to bring the newest research and thought to bear on the issues to do what work we can, to provide solace to those most in need. In the frame of climate-exacerbated, geopolitical inequities, this means paying particular attention to marginalized voices. That might look like allying with refugee women and children or learning from diverse communities fighting for their lives and land.

When we look at independent activist blogs, progressive alternative media outlets such as Novara and Red Pepper as well as citizen-led initiatives like and Give Something Back to Berlin, there is little question that much of the dominant rhetoric does not accord with the facts or people’s lived experiences. Prevailing ideological discourses in the political, economic mainstream and the work that they do – the purposes that they serve; the emotions they fuel; the core human needs they tap into or neglect – purposefully or inadvertently oppress great varieties of groups. For example, a speech act asserting that there is no such thing as ‘moral imperialism’ is a form of epistemic violence, for it asserts the highly problematic notion that there is only one uniform ‘morality’. It enshrines the strictures of universalist normativity. However, to proclaim that there are widely shared common values is accurate and beneficial; acknowledging the nuances here is crucial.

As alternately privileged individuals and groups in political space, we might make space for a more fruitful discussion in contemplating the socio-ecological make-up of successful, inclusive pluralistic communities. Such constructive initiatives, though the minority, do exist and succeed beyond the faulty neo-liberal, capitalist system (e.g., Mondragon Cooperative, Italian examples). Obstruction is useful in the face of overwhelming, unjust powers of individuals and groups at the highest echelons of society while peace-affirming, constructive, creative acts are most in want (see Metta Centre’s explications of the 2-pronged approach to achieving social justice). This is an area in need of greater focus rather than a narrowing in on the occasional reactive acts of the ‘poor’, ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘immoral’ ‘victims’. The target is way off, in my view.

Sometimes hurt people hurt others. Those oppressed from all angles and battling the trauma of this continued harm may react violently, if misguided and at loss for non-harmful alternatives. Through a gendered lens, this might include males’ socialization into violent sub- and often times even mainstream cultures. Empirical evidence further outlines males’ increased anti-foreigner sentiment in areas with high unemployment. Why the restriction to lower socio-economic status groups’ prejudice on the part of academics? Should we not be striving for an amelioration of a totalizing system that brings about a competitive, dog-eat-dog mode of survival, deleterious for all? Based on the data, it could be said that the elite-led mainstream media propagandizes the middle class into blaming the lower class for a whole host of societal ailments. Right-wing, xenophobic parties appeal to all classes to blame the foreigner, though perhaps the one without work in an exclusionary neo-conservative, capitalist system will be compelled to take to the streets. This should come as no surprise and in following with Duckitt’s dual-process model of prejudice and social dominance theory (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), can be expected. We also know, demographically considered, from PEGIDA to UKIP, anti-foreigner sentiment comes from the core of society, and yet manifests quite differently across all levels. One can see this in Germany and South Africa, for example. An intersectional analysis of oppression demonstrates that those most marginalized are made most vulnerable to attacks from manifold groups. Outright statements of anti-foreigner beliefs may be more readily apparent at lower levels of education on standard school-based tests but are overwhelmingly unreliable (social scientists generally make pains to protect against socially-desirable responding, as much as that is even possible).

People with higher levels of education, on the other hand, express their bigotry in more subtle, codified ways, making no less of an impact. These groups are less direct at least in terms of one-on-one interpersonal violence yet support deadly policies or exhibit epistemic, paternalizing, and patronizing forms of ‘benevolent’ racism, sexism, and so on (see concepts of modern, subtle, ambivalent prejudice). From that standpoint, it is our duty to be vigilant in the face of our own prejudices – for we all have them – and to take responsibility and to speak openly about them. Not to pretend the problem is not our own but a generally ‘uneducated’ or ‘traumatized’ other’s. It is ours to bear, to share, and so, to heal.

Systemic healing and transformation of human-ecological relations requires ways built on knowledges new and old. We need to do rid of false Cartesian dualistic, Newtonian reductionist, Lockean philosophical portraits of human nature. Instead we may practice acts of opening, acknowledging, and sitting with the pain of past and present injustices in order to move forward, together. This is a most daunting task. Rather than closing down and retaliating in the face of fear and immediacy, we can learn ways to channel difficult emotions and cognitions for a true reconciliation and potential future companionship. This can be achieved through an embodied harmony found in situating one’s self in fullest albeit always limited perspective through systemic, ecological awareness with a redemptive storyline. Where am I situated in space? How do I interrelate to others? How have I arrived here and where do I wish for us to go? Linear, dogmatic thinking produces insufficient responses to the complexities of our existence.

Hateful acts born of hurt, ignorance, and greed can be brought to justice through transformative, restorative circles that follow ecological, scientific, and spiritual truths. We know this is the way communities can heal and restore a sense of security and trust. We know this is possible and successful, if not less conventional. Yes, we might expect resistance if we are to halt deeply-entrenched, continual, successive cycles of violence, repression, and oppression, and to actualize liberation through comprehensive programming. After all, as David Barsamian reminded in citing Arundhati Roy the other night, ‘another world is only possible, she is on her way‘.

What might assist us in this monumental task? Education is one mechanism. But of what sort? Not of the neocolonial variety but one fostering a fair and kind global plurality of epistemologies and ontologies. To attempt to achieve this vision, we need to be honest with the existential anxiety (see terror management theory) that comes with opening up to relearning and challenging some of our core assumptions. Importantly, we can put these into motion during times of perceived danger, discontent, and discomfort.

I know from self-observance that when in severe pain, I forcibly constrict and so too does my range of motion and vision. My attentional focus is pitifully narrow and single-minded: to be rid of the suffering. To guide us through the pains of existence, we have long-held aides, like Buddhist principles of observance which enable more joyful, less damaging ways of accepting and being. Engaged Buddhism as practice places the self and spirit in political context with a steady softness and compassion while facing one’s shadow and that of the other. For, as Rollo May shows us, evil is a problem for us all.

In further continuing what work Jung started, we must drill down to the core of the psyche and its organic origins. This deep ecology-honouring psychology helps many a ‘Western’, continental, hierarchic, individualist, dualistic mind come to grips with the struggle of finding balance among ambiguity, to craft a social fabric of tolerance, of equanimity and direction in pursuit of truth, knowing it to be fleeting and ever-changing. In Jung’s words, that process is to reconcile or bring in the shadow for a harmonizing union. We’ve new instruments on this expedition though the journey is always one’s own. As D. H. Lawrence says, ‘To be alone with one’s own soul.’ The tools are only the finger that points the way – ‘do not confuse the finger for the moon’! We might be companions to one another, enacting a lived prefigured politics of compassion in view of our own intertwined privileges and oppressions. Not losing sight and hope for a better world. Never taking refuge in dogma.

I am curious to see the psychoanalytical interpretations of those in clinical and community practice of ‘the schism’ (see Bateson’s Schismogenesis), which might invigorate a violent, alternately shadow-worshipping and denying, splitting authoritarian pattern. Altemeyer’s extensive work into the individual-level personality construct of (Right-Wing) Authoritarianism with its three constitutive components of submission to authority, adherence to convention, and aggressive impulses, provides empirical description of this way of relating. On the flip side of the coin contributing to prejudicial beliefs is Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) (Pratto & Sidanius, 2001), a neoliberal or capitalist, dog-eat-dog, tit-for-tat mentality enhanced by the primacy of competitive market-based, survivalist, hedonic, hierarchical influences. In my view, SDO is closely aligned to concepts of Hierarchic Self-Interest (Boehnke, Hagan, Hadjar, and colleagues), and possessive individualism (MacPherson). Both feed off a politics of fear, exclusion, and competition. Both are anti-egalitarian. Both relate to benevolent, ambivalent, and hostile sexism and racism though in different ways and are context dependent. Here, realistic group conflict over resources may play a role but our analysis should not stop there. One needs look to, interrogate, and disrupt the ideologies doing the energizing work which precipitate and inflame prejudice and oppression at the individual-, group-, institutional-, and societal-level. But what next?

Have hope. Shalom Schwartz’s work alongside Gizelle Rhyon-Berry’s extensive comparative approach to diverse societies tells us there are tenets we know to be true that might serve as a compass in times of particular and impending resource constraints (see my other post delineating the interplay of the natural world and human life in ecological context). Particularly when survival-based reasoning, strategies, and tactics might make us blind to our own bigotry, we must own up to our own limits of cognitive and attributional complexityempathy, responsive feeling, and self- and other-compassion. This is crucial but addressing bias, hierarchy, and privilege should be done systematically through experiential learning anchored by a framework of analysis for orientation and structure. Above all, it must create a culture of compassion, focussing on a purpose-driven goal of bringing about social justice and local and global flourishing, as lucidly and evocatively depicted in the documentaries from World Trust Institute. For a rare few, we see that this comes more easily. For others, based upon past traumas, societal conditioning, temperament, and other factors, education and spaces are required to practice dealing with conflict inherent in human relations. Methods and cross-cultural evidence already exist; the task is to shift the cluster of core values toward those which ameliorate and liberate (the values in the top half of the below spatial representation, which are preferentially opposed to the lower half). A majority of people across the globe already rank universalism, benevolence, and self-direction values at the top of their value preferences though social structures have not found a way to support these individual desires.


Courtesy of

On a final note, social dominance theory takes a multi-level approach to addressing the universal inequities in social relations exhibited across history and place. The relative contingencies hinge on geopolitical, socio-historical exigencies to be sure. We might be bolstered and encouraged that social science informed by anthropological work has brought these factors to fuller comprehension and to much use. For instance, Schwartz’s examination of core human values places two overall solutions to the three interrelated demands of social life. These findings along with Lakoff’s frames theory are now being successfully deployed as we speak (see Monbiot’s recent talk and the David Suzuki Foundation’s article).

SDO Figure

Fig. (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999)

We could consider these interrelated frameworks as instruments toward assisting and organizing policy and action. Still, social movements in indigenous territories led by indigenous peoples, for example, already make claim to the falsity of limited top-down notions of emancipation. Like many stated in the discussion period, the German, European, corporate and political elites, among others, serve to benefit off of the marginalized. Discourses of migrants’ ‘usefulness’, while doing rhetorical work for a capitalist system, do not call upon the moral imperative of the basic right to a dignified, full life which they ought to predicate upon. Who would we invite into ‘our country’? In Canada’s case, under Harper and in the UK context, it is patently ‘economically-advantageous’ migrants or potential business makers. Certainly not those most in need. More likely those who would bring greater power to those Canadians labelled ‘old-stock’ – a discriminatory ideological ploy of the Harper government which Ian Angus rightly pointed out as misleading. Moreover, whatever is built upon implorations for ‘economics above all else’ is not only harmful but unsustainable and ecologically impossible. It further speaks nothing of social, cultural value – capital, if you will – that others might bring with them. Areas where much of modern societal arrangements are bankrupt. This tactical appeal to dogmatic, bound-to-fail economics further avoids the issue of economic redistribution, necessities of daily life, and flourishing beyond bare minimums. Aiming for the bottom is a problematic concept which Nussbaum and Sen take up at length in their capabilities approach. As they state, we should be thinking how to enlist a measure of quality of life informed by human capability and functioning, and not that of the specter of an imaginary hand guiding some holy market. We are on the way to bringing about better solutions than all that.

The most perspicacious response to understanding the immensity of xenophobia across contexts relies upon a systemic, socio-ecological perspective. This is the only means sufficient in grasping the complexity of interrelations at play. This framework lends itself to a lively debate of ideological discourses proliferating in mainstream and fringe media, governmental, political, and academic spaces as too ‘real-world’ action. It does require self-directed, creative interpretation of the complexity of read-outs and binding of diverse theoretical ecologies. This is no easy feat. We will need scientific evidence, deliberative thought, artistic imaginings, political actions, and spiritual motivations. We have yet to see the critical projects of emancipation and enlightenment settle down. Good, for they are needed now more than ever.


An upcoming entry will explore the ideology of neo-liberalism/-conservatism, its effects, and some of the fairer and kinder alternatives available to us.

*Thanks to LCC for your input.