In defence of xenophobia

Stranger danger.

Xenophobia and xenophilia are vices.

These two tendencies are vices in the Aristotelian sense because each represents a departure from balance.

The person who fears the stranger beyond reason and the person who loves the stranger beyond reason suffer from the same vice, namely an excessive and irrational approach to strangers in general.

This is not to say that one vice is not more dangerous than the other.

We are frequently cautioned, particularly by the media, that xenophobia is a considerable danger.

Yet, if we think about this for a moment, it is obvious that while both xenophobia and xenophilia are vices, xenophilia contains the greater danger.

We teach our children from an early age that the stranger is a dangerous figure.

We teach them to seek the police if they find themselves alone.

The child has a limited ability to reason about that dangers of a stranger, so it is better to encourage them to distrust all strangers.

When an adult meets a stranger there is still reticence in their interactions.

We talk to a new person in the same way as we would venture onto an icy river: we gently press and probe the territory.

We do not want to fall into the abyss.

We cannot easily discern what the stranger is about. We cannot tell from their actions and speech if they mean us harm or well.

Aside from mere violence and chicanery, there are good biological reasons to fear the stranger.

The stranger may bring a new disease into your village.

Those indigenous Americans who welcomed Columbus and the other early discoverers found good reason to regret their xenophilia.

It would have been better for the Indians to kill Columbus and the other discoverers on sight.

This would have been irrational xenophobia, but it would have been better than the alternative.

Xenophobia would have spared them not only enslavement, but also – far more deadly – contact with the invisible empire of European germs that was soon to conquer the continent.

Without the germ theory of disease nobody could predict that fatal exchange that was about to occur when the New World was opened up to the Old.

The Europeans got syphilis. The natives got – well – everything.

I think this was a fair exchange, really. The Indians died en masse, but the Europeans suffered centuries of genital sores and syphilis-induced madness.

I think that, in many ways, it was preferable to be wiped out in one generation rather than endure centuries of pus-filled, shameful sexual interaction.

This is why there is no debt to be paid in relation to the colonisation of America.

The indigenous peoples have had their revenge on the sons and daughters of Columbus.

Think about all those exotic cures for syphilis that the Europeans endured until antibiotics were discovered.

Mercury injected into the penis, anyone?

The Arawak and their spirits are laughing still.

There is no moral responsibility here. It was not a deliberate exchange of plagues for the most part; only the usual ridiculous human bumbling that leads to mass death and suffering.

Although humans have known about germs for only a short period of time, the heuristic – rule of thumb – that a stranger might bring the plague into the village was quite well established in various parts of the world before we knew what those microscopic beasties were about.

It was a wise custom.

The original failures in xenophobia were the Trojans.

The Trojans must have suffered from an extraordinary xenophilia.

Years under a Greek siege did not stop them from naively trusting the strange wooden horse at the gate.

The city’s lone xenophobe (although, given the circumstances, his caution was quite rational) was the priest Laocoön.

“Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,” he warned.

But nobody listened.

Personally, in a world where balance is hard to find, I would prefer to be a xenophobe alive rather than a xenophile dead.

But, as Aristotle cautioned, it is better to be the man of balance. Neither xenophile nor xenophobe. The problem is that a man of balance is hard to find in every age.