Zero tolerance for zero tolerance for intolerance – thinking about xenophobia

I recently read this article from the Straits Times. While it’s always interesting to observe how the discussion on xenophobia develops in Singapore, I found some of the arguments in this article unconvincing. I personally feel the conclusion of the article (that we need to speak out against ‘xenophobia’, or at least the writer’s definition of it) is intuitively appealing; however, many of the premises used to justify the argument certainly need to be further looked into. In this, I also look into definitions of the word ‘xenophobia’ and why just using different definitions could be divisive. (This is quite a draggy post, but I urge friends to read through and think about the definitions and arguments here!)

Xenophobia – what does it mean?

Given that the word ‘xenophobia’ and its variants appear more than 20 times in the article, I think it’s most important to start off by examining the article’s definition of it. On this, there are three relevant questions to answer – first, does the term refer to a state of fear, a state of hatred, or something in between; second, does xenophobia have to be unreasonable; and perhaps crucially, is it an emotion, an action, or both?

The article doesn’t seem to propose many clear definitions for xenophobia, but two sentences provide clues to its leanings: “… xenophobia – be it hate-filled invectives or ungracious behaviour towards foreigners…” and “[t]he second fallacy is that it is not xenophobia when you have a good reason to hate foreigners… has to do with a common definition of xenophobia as an unreasonable hatred of foreigners.” So this seems to point in the direction that xenophobia refers to a state of hatred, is not necessarily ‘unreasonable’, and is most primarily an action.

Credit: KyivPost

What do the dictionaries say on this? There is some divergence with regard to the first two questions; however most of them would agree that the final part of the article’s implied definition is incorrect. ‘Xenophobia’ does not refer to the action taken by a xenophobe – it clearly refers to the emotion of fear or hatred itself. The Wikipedia article on xenophobia distinguishes between xenophobia, the ‘dislike or fear of people from other countries or of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange’, and how xenophobia manifests itself, for instance through ‘a fear of losing identity… and desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity’.

The second problem I find with the article’s implied definition is that it is unnecessarily restrictive, and that has implications for some of its claims. At this juncture it is useful to consider how the article maps its arguments – critically, for the conclusion to be valid, the premise that ‘xenophobia is bad’ needs to be true. If we adopt a looser definition of the word, is it then the case that all rational or irrational emotions of fear of foreigners that does not translate into action are morally reprehensible? I think not – I would imagine that a 60-year old man who had never seen a foreigner in his life might be terrified upon seeing one, and would be perfectly justified in being frightened (I suspect I might have evoked such emotions in some children while travelling in Europe). So while the argument may be true if we use its implied definition, the restrictive definition itself is not explicitly stated, and this can be very misleading for readers.

‘Misconceptions and fallacies’

I’ll move on to talk about the three ‘misconceptions and fallacies’ that the article puts forth.

1) The article argues that xenophobia is not merely nationalism. This is a valid argument – it is indeed true that not all instances of xenophobia can be solely attributed to nationalism, and the Cook A Pot of Curry Day is a good example of this. However, borrowing some intuition from mathematical reasoning, this premise doesn’t mean that ‘all instances of xenophobia cannot be attributed to nationalism’; only that ‘at least one instance of xenophobia cannot be attributed to nationalism’. The article doesn’t try to prove the former claim.

This is patently much weaker – if we assume that nationalism is justified (as many in the ‘pro-Singaporean’ camp would argue), this makes some instances of xenophobia justified, and thus speaking out against it may not be the best option. However, the article then goes on to suggest that ‘there can be no justification for hating another person for being a foreigner’ – this is not true, if the weaker of the two claims holds, and if nationalism is justified.

2) The second fallacy identified is that it ‘is not xenophobia when you have a good reason to hate foreigners’. This is a definitional argument – and there are already problems with the article’s definition, as mentioned earlier. In the succeeding statements, the author again does not plainly separate emotion from action, so I’ll do it here – while xenophobic emotion in the form of anxiety is ‘natural’, xenophobic action in the form of online sentiments is ‘rude’ and ‘hurtful’. It is not helpful when the distinction is not clearly laid out in the article – while most people would agree that xenophobic action is unwarranted even if you have ‘good reasons’, many would also accept that xenophobic emotions can be justified with good reasons.

3) Finally, the article dismisses the claim that xenophobia is a byproduct of political maturation. However, its arguments against this apparent ‘misconception’ are extremely weak – it does not overtly state why it is not the case, or provide alternative theories to explain the xenophobia in our society. Its only retort is that thinking this way ‘trivialises’ and ‘urges tolerance’ for xenophobia, which is dangerous – but that surely has no effect on the truth value of its claim.


Concluding thoughts

Overall, I see this article, while harbouring the best intentions, as being more alienating than it should be. Is the author speaking out against the manifestations of xenophobia, or xenophobia itself? Surely, xenophobia is itself neither inherently immoral nor unnatural – it,  just like claustrophobia, acrophobia and many of the other -phobias we know, can be borne out of genuine fears, pathological or otherwise. It is the manifest actions stemming from xenophobia that threaten to divide our society, and provide the main reason for action. When we speak about xenophobia, it is important to recognise the distinction between action and emotion, and let this motivate our response – speak out against xenophobic actions, but tolerate and seek to understand and overcome the pathologies underlying such actions.

While there indeed ‘needs to be further penetration into the discourse of xenophobia’, we should perhaps start by thinking about xenophobia and its roots in our society, before inserting our blanket prescription of what should or should not be done with it.

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