Evil Lies in Fear

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Why Xenophobia Works

Prejudice waxes and wanes in society, often for reasons about which people disagree. Regardless, the more we experience social and political tension, the more we are drawn to our “own kind,” also known as an “ingroup” and become more hostile and suspicious towards those who are “different,” or what is termed in psychology as an “outgroup.” The more anxious we feel, the more we identify with our ingroup and limit our interactions with folks we perceive as not like us. If we suffer from personal insecurities, this phenomenon may be intensified and lead to destructive bias against those we perceive as “other.” Hate speech is a reality in this day and age, with many countries around the world adopting legislation relevant to it or concepts like it. It’s scary how effective xenophobia is.  To eradicate a global epidemic, one must first try to understand it. Even while it may seem an impossible task, when it comes to racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, it may be a necessary one if we are to be successful in the fight against hate. Psychologists and sociologists have been trying to understand the psychology behind this type of hate for decades. Hate is a powerful emotion that lodges itself deep within a person’s psyche. Indeed, a growing body of social, psychological, and neurological research suggests that once racial biases and hateful ideologies embed themselves in a person’s brain, they can be difficult—if not impossible—to counteract. This research suggests an uncomfortable reality: that ending racism isn’t something that can be achieved through a handful of counseling or therapy sessions, or anti-bias training… millions of dollars have been spent in recent years on high-profile anti-bias initiatives at companies including Starbucks, Facebook, and Google, as well as in police departments across the country. Yet there is little evidence that these efforts even work. So why is racism still so prevalent after decades of intensive anti-bias activism? While no singular cause has been identified, most theorists agree that there are consistent factors that may help to explain the epistemology of racism.

Is it just prejudice?

It is important to point out the difference between the terms prejudice and racism, as they are not interchangeable concepts. While all racists are prejudiced, not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice is a human phenomenon involving cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice against a particular group of people based on perceived differences, sometimes taken to the extreme. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred. Racism is both a product of genetics and culture (of nature and nurture); that it is exceedingly difficult to erase prejudice from the mind; that the results of racism reduction interventions are disappointingly temporary; and that our racist feelings are readily triggered despite our conscious efforts to be unbiased. The disturbing images of radical hate groups we’ve been seeing lately—which some describe as frighteningly reminiscent of early 20th-century Nazi Germany—do not represent all those with bigoted views. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred. The disturbing images of radical hate groups we’ve been seeing lately—which some describe as frighteningly reminiscent of early 20th-century Nazi Germany—do not represent all those with bigoted views. To hate is human, and can actually be a motivation for good. According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, LMHC, NCC, “Hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts … On the other hand,” she says, “hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes. It is the belief that other ‘groups’ are inherently flawed or inferior or are seen as a threat. Often these groups are dehumanized and de-legitimized, making it easier to hate.” Being social by nature, we find safety in groups – among others like us. First, with our parents and siblings, and then with groups outside the family, like our countrymen, religious cohort, etc. When there is tension between groups, our ingroup helps us to feel safe. Think of an isolated animal in the wild. It is more vulnerable than peers who remain part of the herd of buffalo, pride of lions or school of fish. Like animals, we look to our ingroups for security during anxious times. When anxiety between groups is heightened, a psychological shift occurs – we begin to experience ourselves as members of an ingroup more than as separate individuals. We also increasingly perceive members of the outgroup as simply members of the outgroup, rather than appreciating them for their individuality. This takes us to a crucial question: how does ignorance about others take hold and thrive? To begin with, it is far easier to fear those who have different customs and beliefs. Their very differences can cause us to be suspicious. But ignorance gets a considerable assist from bystanders who know better but don’t speak up. It gets support from a kind of group consensus that thrives when those who have exposure to information and knowledge are silenced.

What fuels xenophobia

Xenophobia a psychological defense mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety. In other words, racism is a symptom of ill mental health. It is a sign of a lack of psychological integration, a lack of self-esteem and inner security. Psychologically healthy people with a stable sense of self and strong inner security are not racist, because they have no need to strengthen their sense of self through group identity. They have no need to define themselves in distinction to — and in conflict with — others. There is some evidence for this view from the psychological theory of terror management. Terror Management Theory posits that we are pretty much at all times warding off a powerful existential anxiety about dying. Even when we are not consciously aware of this fear, mortality is (unconsciously) always on our mind. Terror management is thought to significantly contribute to the exacerbation of discrimination through activating the salient tendency for ingroup-outgroup divisions.  Allegiance to and identification with the in-group, while at the same time devaluing others (“outsiders,” “aliens,” “immigrants,” those who do not belong), feed narcissistic, omnipotent feelings and inflate a sense of self-importance. A chronic sense of vulnerability and insecurity can us to identify powerfully with our ingroup, even when there is no clear tension between our ingroups and anyone else. Our personal insecurity is perceived as a lack of safety for our entire ingroup – and we perceive an attack on our group as a personal attack on us. This perception of being endangered as a group leads us maintain an alliance with members of our ingroup and reject members of the outgroup – they are perceived as the enemy. Nationalism, communism, socialism, and other “isms” can function as a narcotic, a psychic painkiller that fosters a deep dependency in people who are searching for comfort, security, and relief from ontological anxiety. People subordinate themselves to an idea or principle and experience a false sense of power, the illusion of fusion and connection that comes from being a part of a patriotic, fanatic religious, or nationalistic movement is both exhilarating and addictive. Ironically, some members of extremist hate groups are motivated by the need for love and belonging—a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups such as neo-Nazis is one way to do so. The us-versus-them mentality makes them feel closer to the group they identify with, which provides social support which is a severely perverted version of healthy social support, but the longing to identify with and be close to others is a healthy desire. In times when our self-preservation feels even more threatened, we are more likely to feel hostility towards anyone perceived as an “other.” This, like all other unconscious processes, takes place outside of our awareness. Therefore, any actions taken in accordance with them, will likely be rationalized with consciously available reasons. As a result, we adopt beliefs, attitudes, and motivations that allow us to increase our sense of self-worth and belonging. At its best, this results in striving to leave a mark in the world through one’s contributions to society. At its worst, it can catalyze the development of prejudices and biases that one’s ingroup, for example, is superior to others. Research has shown that when people are given reminders of their own mortality, they feel a sense of anxiety and insecurity, which they respond to by becoming more prone to status-seeking, materialism, greed, prejudice, and aggression. They are more likely to conform to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups.  The motivation of these behaviors is to enhance one’s sense of significance or value in the face of death, or to gain a sense of security or belonging, as a way of protecting oneself against the threat of mortality.

Furthermore it is possible to identify five different aspects of racism as psychological defense mechanisms. These could also be seen as different stages, moving towards more extreme versions of racism. Firstly, if a person feels insecure or lacking in identity, they may have a desire to affiliate themselves with a group in order to strengthen their sense of identity and find a sense of belonging. Being part of something bigger than themselves and sharing a common cause with the other members of their group makes them feel more complete and significant. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Why shouldn’t we take pride in our national or religious identity (or even our identity as fans of soccer or baseball clubs), and feel a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood with others who share our identity? However, this group identity may lead to a second stage: enmity towards other groups, When one race of persons unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group—fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened—they will develop these defensive thoughts and behaviors, they will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in an attempt to secure their own safety and survival. In order to further strengthen their sense of identity, members of a group may develop hostile feelings toward other groups. The group may become more defined and cohesive in its otherness to — and in its conflict with — other groups. The third aspect is when members of a group take the step of withdrawing empathy from members of other groups, limiting their concern and compassion to their fellows. They may act benevolently towards members of their own group, but be cruel and heartless to anyone outside it. (This helps explain why some of the most brutal individuals in history, such as Adolf Hitler, sometimes reportedly acted kindly to the people around them.) This is closely to related to a fourth aspect, which is the homogenization of individuals belonging to other groups. This means that people are no longer perceived in terms of their individual personalities or behavior, but in terms of generalized prejudices and assumptions about the group as a whole. And finally — moving into the most dangerous and destructive extreme of racism — projection. Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our own shortcomings by transferring—or projecting—them onto others, people may project their own psychological flaws and their own personal failings onto another group, as a strategy of avoiding responsibility and blame. Other groups become scapegoats, and consequently are liable to punished, even attacked or murdered, in revenge for their alleged crimes. Individuals with strong narcissistic and paranoid personality traits are especially prone to this strategy, since they are unable to admit to any personal faults, and are especially likely to demonize others. Xenopobia’s power shouldn’t suprise us either, 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. 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. 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.

Why xenophobia in response to pandemics is (sadly) normal

Headlines and news cycles are filled with catastrophic proclamations and numbers regarding rising rates of coronavirus in China and growing numbers in the United States. These concerns are also leading to growing reports of xenophobia, and specifically, racism towards Chinese and Asian immigrants. Customers from mainland China have reportedly been banned from businesses in other parts of Asia, and in Washington State, a Costco worker allegedly told an Asian family with a child wearing a facemask to “move away” out of fear they might be from China and have the Wuhan coronavirus. Racism is never appropriate or justified. It represents bigotry, fear, and discrimination, and is harmful to both society and individuals.  Racial stereotyping is a dangerous form of discrimination, which typically emerges from a place of ignorance and broad generalizations, such as thinking: “They look Asian—the virus in the news is from Asia—they might have that virus.” In such thinking flows a very loose and subjective flow of logic, and is a form of logic which can easily lead to overreactions and gross generalizations. However, appeals against racism may not be sufficient to overcome what is likely a deep-seated, evolutionarily influenced tendency in humans. The “parasite-stress theory” is a relatively recent body of research that explores the role that risks of infectious disease and viral and bacterial parasites have played on the psychology and sociology of humans. This is a fascinating area of research, with extraordinary and far-reaching implications on understanding humans and how and why we act the way we do, both individually and collectively. Researchers have found that xenophobia itself, fear of others who are different from us, is heavily influenced by the local risk of parasitic infections. In one survey of world values, researchers found that people who lived in an area with a higher level of “combined parasite stress” (essentially, a measure of the risk of dangerous infectious disease) were much more likely to report they didn’t want to live next to someone of a different race, or someone who speaks a different language. These researchers distinguish “ethnocentrism” from “xenophobia,” where ethnocentrism is a central focus on the needs of one’s own culture or race, as opposed to violent or fearful rejection of those who are different. Countries experiencing food shortages, for instance, are more likely to display higher levels of ethnocentrism, but not xenophobia, whereas higher levels of intergroup or tribal violence are likely to feed xenophobia and relatively less ethnocentrism. Xenophobia, based on parasite stress and fear of infectious disease, rests on some basic biological principles: namely, that people who look more like me are more likely to have a similar immune system as I do. Their biology is expected to be somewhat similar to mine when it comes to their exposure to disease. And so, if they look generally healthy, they are likely not to be carrying something that would get you sick. But someone who looks different than you may have a very different immune system than you do, and thus they may expose you or your damily to diseases which your body and immune system are unprepared for. Remeber how I talked about group bais eailer in thread? Higher levels of xenophobia, tribal conflict, and rejection of “out-group” members are found in parts of the world where there are higher levels of infectious disease and exposure to infection. And even in areas with lower levels of disease, xenophobia increases in the face of increased disease and infectious exposure. Areas of the world with higher levels of infectious disease have more authoritarian, “in-group” forms of government, and are more resistant to democratic form, and much more likely to adopt racist and xenophobic governing principles. As levels of parasite stress decreased in regions, for instance, through the introduction of antibiotics and increased access to medical care, peace follows. Even at an individual level, researchers have found that people who live in areas with higher infectious disease are less likely to be extraverted, and much less likely to be open to new experiences, as both personality traits may be more likely to expose an individual to new, novel persons and diseases. Xenophobia is not merely as fear or hatred of people who are different than us, but say the avoidance of and antagonism toward out-groups—is an adaptation or evolved solution to the problem of being maladapted to the infectious diseases parasitizing out-groups.” Rather than viewing xenophobia as an outpouring of intrinsic racism, selfishness, fear, and bigotry, it may help put things into perspective to understand that throughout human history, xenophobia actually was protective and adaptive. These xenophobic feelings don’t mean that these are people who have always secretly been racist. Instead, the parasite stress theory and research suggest that xenophobia was one way in which groups of humans tried to stay safe in a scary and dangerous world. Shaming people for normal feelings, fears, and thoughts is exactly how we drive these feelings underground into secrecy, where they fester. 

Why you can’t just call someone racist

What is the most effective way to “oppose hate”? What should we do when someone makes a comment that we experience as racist, sexist, homophobic or ethnocentric? Do we ignore it in order to get along? Do we confront the person? If so, how? When we ignore remarks we experience as bigoted, we enable them. However, while confronting our opponents might make us feel good, it is rarely effective. Direct confrontations tend to provoke feelings of shame, defensiveness and anger. When this happens, opposing parties become invested in defending themselves and protecting their self-image. When we ignore remarks we experience as bigoted, we enable them. However, while confronting our opponents might make us feel good, it is rarely effective, we cannot eliminate hate by force. Direct confrontations tend to provoke feelings of shame, defensiveness and anger. When this happens, opposing parties become invested in defending themselves and protecting their self-image. We rarely convince each other about sensitive topics through confrontation. Instead, we simply push away the very people we hope to influence. A person who is classified as a bigot, a hater, a racist, a sexist ,or the like is unlikely to change his or her heart or mind by being “called out.” In fact, it is likely to increase his or her feelings of bigotry, hatred, or racism. The reason is simple and obvious. To call someone a bigot is to insult, shame, and humiliate them. The most natural reactions to being insulted, shamed and humiliated are anger and rage. When we are shamed, our very sense of personhood becomes spoiled in the eyes of others. The natural reaction is hostility toward the person who is doing the humiliating. The person classified as bigoted, racist and sexist becomes resentful and goes underground. The anger and resentment seethes – and comes out in a virulent form when the opportunity arises. While it is natural to attack the views of people who one sees as espousing morally repugnant views, people’s don’t change by being attacked. People influence each other through their capacity for deep engagement. For example, gay and lesbian rights have flourished in recent decades. They have done so at a pace that is astonishing. Gays and lesbians are legally able to marry – an idea that would have been unspeakable in mainstream politics even 15 years ago. How did attitudes change so fast? It was not because people who have been called “homophobes” have realized the error of their ways. It is because people who hold anti-gay and lesbian sentiments came to be aware that family members, friends, colleagues and other loved ones were gay and lesbian. Bigotry is fought not with humiliation and moral derision, but instead with what might be called guarded engagement. Both terms — guarded and engagement — are important here. Let’s start with guarded. Persons who has been marginalized or socially disadvantaged lack social power. In situations involving a power imbalance, it would be foolish to think that the less powerful party can engage with the more powerful party one equal terms. This is not suggesting a form of “reasoning” with the Other here. It is also not suggesting passivity, cajoling or pleading with the more powerful other. No, the person who has been affronted must protect the self from the more powerful other. The oppressed other must be able to say “No, you can’t do this to me anymore.” The marginalized group should indeed rise up as a group; there is strength in numbers. And of course, it is important for marginalized groups to forge ties with like-minded members of dominant groups, as this fortifies a group’s strength still further. Having resolved not to “give in” to the dominant group, the next step is engagement with the opposition. This requires deep strength, deeper strength than it takes to rise up and declare war against the opposition. Engagement is born of curiosity and a desire to understand the other. Yes, curiosity and a desire to understand the person one considers to be a bigot, racist, sexist or the like. It requires putting aside for now – never forgetting – one’s sense of hurt. It involves checking one’s sense of moral superiority long enough to really listen, even if we disagree and feel disgust for the positions espoused by the other, if we want to oppose hate, we have to do it by tending to the internal and external conditions that foster hate. This can only be done by forging relationships with those with whom we disagree. If we want to get rid of the isms, we must find ways to engage each other through our disagreement. In a political discussion, perhaps the biggest obstacle in doing so is our own sense of moral superiority. If we see the other as racist, sexist or bigoted, we fear that engaging that person makes us racist, sexist or bigoted as well. We feel that the morally correct thing to do is to declare the moral failing of the other, “call out” the other, and shame the other. But it is possible to disagree vehemently with another’s moral position while still seeking to understand, listen, and even learn from them. If we want to oppose hate, we have to do it by tending to the internal and external conditions that foster hate. We must always act forcefully to protect those who are harmed by bigotry and hate. However, we cannot eliminate hate through force or violence. We must talk to our enemies and seek to understand the pleas behind their positions. It does not diminish us to understand and even empathize with people with whom we with disagree – it actually increases the likelihood that we will be able to create some sort of common ground. It is only when we have the courage to truly engage each other – without giving in on our own moral convictions – that we can make genuine progress in change


1. What fuels xenophobia?
2. what is the difference between racism and prejudice?
3. what defines healthy xenophobia?
4. What is the difference between strong nationalism and xenophobia?
5. have you ever experinced xenophobia?
6. What way is xenophobia most destructive? 
7. why is racism hard to fight?