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Published On: Thu, Sep 12th, 2019

Xenophobia: Etymology of a hate-word

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THURSDAY Column with Mohammed Adamu

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By Mohammed Adamu

The first time I looked up the dictionary meaning of ‘xenophobia’ I realized just how presumptively carefree sometimes we can get with definitional issues. The word was not what I had always thought it was. I had allowed, to settle in my subliminal mind, a journeyman’s understanding of it as ‘pigmented racialism’. And over time I had not only wrongly presumed ‘xenophobia’ as ‘color hate’, but restrictively too, a one-way Caucasian attitude against blacks. Not that I denied that blacks were capable of pigmented racialism, but that definitionally, I thought they should be in-capable of xenophobia, -because, like Zionism has patented ‘Holocaust’ for the experience only of European Jews in the hands of Nazi Germany, I thought that etymologically ‘xenophobia’ too was some patented hate-luxury that only the whites could afford, at the expense of blacks. Until a few months back, when the repeated use of the term ‘xenophobia’ in describing what South Africans were doing to black migrants, motivated a definitional voyage into the encyclopedias of the English language, law and politics, -to unravel the linguistic, etymological and legal implications of the term, ‘xenophobia’. Encarta English Dictionary defines the word as “intense fear” or “dislike” of “foreign people”; and Oxford Dictionary, as “deep-rooted fear towards foreigners”. But Webster’s includes a less humanoid, more generic sense of the word as: “fear of the unfamiliar”. ‘Xenophobia’ originated from the Greek word ‘xenos’ (‘strange’ or ‘foreign’) and ‘phobos’ (‘fear’ or ‘dislike’). Thus to be ‘xenophobic’ it is sufficient only to ‘fear’ or to ‘dislike’ the ‘unfamiliar’, the ‘strange’ or the ‘foreign’. It does not necessarily include to ‘hate’ or to harm the objects of that ‘fear’ or ‘dislike’. Which is not to suggest that the word ‘hate’ may not be a passable synonym of ‘dislike’. Suffice it to say that every man or state has the right to be xenophobic –provided that they do no violence physically to the objects of their ‘fear’, ‘dislike’ or even ‘hate’. And maybe it is the reason the term is also defined socio-politically as: an ‘extreme form of nationalism’ which, aside its primary meaning as ‘desire for political independence’, also refers to: extremely passionate desire to be free from foreign control; or an overly protective, defensive or watchful loyalty to one’s country; or an excessive or fanatical devotion to one’s nation’. None of which includes the right to do harm to the objects of one’s ‘fear’, ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’.
But ‘xenophobia’ is also associated with the term ‘ethnocentrism’ –a conviction of one’s cultural or social superiority. Which, ironically here, South Africans cannot be said to be guilty of; because it is the flip side of the socio-cultural complex, namely a feeling of socio-cultural ‘inferiority’, that they seem pathologically to be plagued by. In a sense meaning that they deserve more of our sympathy than they do our antipathy. By the way, ‘xenophobia’ is linked also, to the term ‘isolationism’ –a form of nationalism that historians say was the underlying ardor which once ‘spawned the policies of China and Japan’ towards Europe. Again this policy is defined by three mutually inclusive nuances, namely: ‘protectionism’, ‘patriotism’ and –here we go again- ‘xenophobia’. None of which, again, justifies violence against foreigners or strangers. Penguin’s ‘Dictionary of International Relations’ said that in its most extreme form, “xenophobia may often also reflect a paranoid view of the outside world” especially by political leaders, -like the paranoia of Russia’s communist Stalin which led to the creation of an isolationist –even if ideologically protective- communist ‘Iron Curtain’ on the Russian continent; or the paranoia of Germany’s Nazi-Hitler, which led to the glorification of the Aryan race and its proclaimed right to rule the world; or the paranoia of Italy’s fascist Mussolini, who allied with the German Fuhrer to levy a war on the world. Said a Spanish Diplomat, Salvador de Madariaga, “In politics, as in grammar, one should be able to tell the substantives from the adjectives. Hitler was a substantive; Mussolini only an adjective. Hitler was a nuisance. Mussolini was bloody. Together a bloody nuisance”. Needless to say that of these history’s ignoble models that South Africa apes after, Ramaphosa may only be just a ‘gas-chamber’ away from donning the Nazi ‘swastika’ as epaulet of honor! By the way, every state, they say, is blotted by a little tinge of xenophobia; the degree to which it is allowed to intrude into policy-making varies with varying circumstances. Xenophobia is encouraged during wartime to forge a common purpose, but in peacetime unfortunately it can be manipulated to provide scapegoats for policy failure –which obviously is what Ramaphosa’s failing ANC Government appears to be doing.
By the way, even the word ‘patriotism’ –which is one of the many elements that define ‘nationalism’- is itself further defined by three other elements, namely: 1, ‘jingoism’, (a belligerent, often blind, form of nationalism that expresses itself harshly towards other countries); 2, ‘chauvinism’, (an aggressive, unreasoning or over-enthusiastic form of patriotism’); and, –here we go again- 3, ‘xenophobia’. And so xenophobia, like jingoism or chauvinism, cannot, all by itself, be legally offensive. Needless to say that Jewry’s attempt to make ‘anti-Semitism’ a ‘hate crime’ still remains jurisprudentially contentious under international law; -reason being that: merely ‘hating’, ‘fearing’ or ‘disliking’ a people without that hatred, fear or dislike manifesting itself in physical, mental or psychological harm to them, cannot be justiciable. To sue solely upon a xenophobic conduct is to criminalize ‘mens rea’ or ‘guilty mind’, without an ‘actus reus’ or the ‘guilty act’. And just like freely swinging one’s arm without harming another has never been an offence under the law, it is inconceivable that merely ‘fearing’ or ‘disliking’ others should ever be. When Lord Denning said “your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins”, what he meant was that as people have a right under the law –needfully or needlessly- to swing their arms, so do others have, the corresponding right not to anticipate harm from the needless or even if needful swinging of others’ arms. Thus what South Africans are doing to migrants (killing, maiming and looting their shops) cannot be said to be ‘xenophobic’. It is something worse than xenophobia. They, –like the notorious Russian or German ‘Skin-Heads’ do, have taken ‘xenophobia’ beyond its passive text book meaning to an active, extra-definitive realm by doing physical, mental and psychological violence to the objects of their ‘dislike’ and the sources of their ‘fear’. Legally-speaking South Africans have swung their arms beyond the threshold of their ‘Denning’s Right’ to include the right to bruise the noses of others. Thus etymologically and linguistically ‘xenophobia’ is hardly ever as guilty as it is charged; because, alone it neither kills nor maim nor burgle nor torch the property of those that it fears or dislikes. And Just like anti-Semitics or Islamaphobes, people can be xenophobic without having to harm those that they fear or dislike. Xenophobia, un-like terrorism, is supposed to be a state of mind and not an existential, smoldering ball of ‘hate’ rolling in action. And maybe both neologists and jurists still have some work to do: namely to give us a different word for ‘hate-crime’ which is induced by xenophobia; so that we have the right word not only to theorize with, but also to sue by!

And maybe it is the reason South Africa’s complicit political leaders have the nerve to tell the world that ‘xenophobia’ is not listed as an offence under their country’s legal system, and that therefore neither xenophobes would be punished nor compensation paid for the lootings perpetrated by xenophobes. In truth, ‘xenophobia’ is not and cannot be an offence under any legal system! But murder, arson, theft, burglary, battery and assault, are! Plus, you do not necessarily require a written law crafted with ‘xenophobia’ in mind before compensation can be paid for lives and property lost as a result of obvious ‘hate crimes’ committed against law-abiding migrants. Some hopeless, shameless, female Minister of Defense with a tongue-twister for a name –Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula- had said that the South African Government is incapable of stopping the killing and looting! Nothing can be more complicit! This proves that from mere xenophobia to burglary and arson to murder, South Africa’s political leaders and many of her murderous, thieving citizens, are ripening fast for plucking; if not under municipal laws for the regular statutory criminal offences, then maybe for offences of serious concern to international law, namely: genocide, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity! The International Criminal Court, ICC must be getting ready for the plucking!

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