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Why Xenophobia Works

Why is "fear of outsiders" such an important political strategy?

Many years ago, I used xenophobia as a management tool. I did it, without knowing what I was doing, when I rallied staff, faculty, alumni, and current students to fight proposed budget cuts to my university department. I exhorted these people to unite against the threat of “outsiders,” i.e., the administrators who wanted to make the cuts. It worked. We generated hundreds of letters of support and signatures on petitions. The administration backed off, and the program survived.

It’s scary how effective xenophobia is. It works equally well for all kinds of groups. For example, a whipped-up fear of outsiders (in this case, Latino immigrants) mobilized millions to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. This power shouldn’t surprise us; xenophobia is rooted in the biology of our species.

The Roots of Xenophobia

Xenophobia was a crucial element of the complex of emotions that bound our ancestors together in hunter-gatherer bands. The name of every hunter-gatherer group translates as “The People” or “The Human Beings.” That obviously implies that everyone else—everyone not in the band—is not quite a person, not quite human.

Xenophobia really has two main effects: it mobilizes people to fight for their group, and it serves to bind members of the group together. Here’s an interesting incident described by anthropologist Colin Turnbull in The Forest People:

We met Madyadya coming hotfoot from the direction of the village to warn Ekinga that a group of foreign Pygmies… had invaded our territory and were stealing all our honey... Masisi immediately sent his son with Madyadya to tell Manyalibo to forget the quarrel about the nets and come and join him at once… so that we could all make war on the other Pygmies together… (Turnbull, 1961, pp. 274-275, italics added).

There was no war, no fight with “foreign Pygmies.” Masisi used the supposed threat to draw quarreling band members back together. The story is a great illustration of how xenophobia worked in these bands to trump petty internal quarrels and to bind people to the group.

All evolution’s children got xenophobia. We’ve all got the fear of outsiders in our genes. In the natural environment it was adaptive. It contributed to group cohesion and, thus, to the group’s survival. But in a world of huge, plural societies and devastating weapons, xenophobia has obviously become a danger to the human species.

Who Are the People Now?

As humans settled down to farm, the number of people that had to be included in the group expanded exponentially. In these larger societies, “the people” became an increasingly abstract entity. How to bind them together? Various devices were created to produce cohesion among people who hardly knew each other and who were often split into potentially hostile factions: allegiance to a ruler, an official language, an official religion, commercial alliances, etc.

It didn’t take long for leaders to learn how to tap into our natural xenophobia to bind people together, get them to stop fighting among themselves, focus their attention, and obey the leader. Individuals interested in expanding or maintaining power have magnified, or simply created, outside threats to unite the diverse interests of their constituents. Hitler’s creation of a “Jewish threat” is perhaps the most infamous example; he simply manufactured an outside threat to bring the people (the volk) closer together and place them under his sway. History is chock full of similar examples.

Xenophobia continues to be an effective political tool because having a common enemy feels good. So people employ xenophobia all the time, on every social level. A university department, beleaguered by budget cuts, puts individual disagreements aside and pulls together against the administration. Union members who may have nothing to do with one another on a day-to-day basis join together to picket against unfair management practices, etc., etc.

Can Xenophobia Be Contained?

If there is any hope for a less xenophobic world, it probably lies in expanding “the band” to include all human beings. Someday, it may be possible to raise children who have a kind of species solidarity and an understanding of their connection with all life on earth..

That day may be far off, but, for now, we think the study of human evolution provides the best possible antidote to xenophobia. The central message of human evolution is that we are one species, related to all other species. We are separated by our cultures and set against each other by language, religion, experience, and education, but we are united by our genes.

References

Turnbull, Colin. 1961. The Forest People. New York: Simon and Schuster

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