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David Nightingale: Xenophobia

Xenophobia – from the Greek word xenos for stranger – is the morbid dislike of foreigners, and is a very common trouble.

So we have a white Australian racist living in New Zealand, killing 49 people in March 2019, because they were Moslem ‘strangers’, and we have a white nationalist Norwegian man shooting 77 people in 2011, because he felt Norway was being overrun by foreigners.

Anyone who is ‘different’ in a group can be a victim. A dark-skinned person in a pink-skinned group, and vice-versa, a deaf person in a group with normal hearing, and so on. In the 60s, in the Middle East, I was a clean-shaven fair-haired male in a completely dark-haired and usually mustached male society, and on one occasion, while walking, a group of boys threw stones at me.

The young man who murdered nine black worshippers in a South Carolina church in summer 2015, believed, presumably from his background and environment, that blacks should not be in America, despite the fact that they were brought to America forcibly.

In the rest of the animal world, the runt of the litter, the blind one, the albino, there may be the desire to eliminate the strange one, but contrastingly there may also be the desire to protect the odd one. The National Geographic [ref.3] has many examples, of such things as a dog nursing a baby squirrel as part of her own litter, a hen sitting on pups to keep them warm, a gorilla looking after a kitten, and a sperm whale adopting a spinally deformed bottlenose dolphin.

So the desire to kill off the stranger is certainly not hard and fast. When Columbus reached Hispaniola in 1492 the Arawaks greeted the pale skinned strangers with friendliness. Why no xenophobia there? Was it because the Europeans were armed?

Columbus was recorded by his priest Bartoleme de las Casas as saying ‘with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want’. Sadly, the Arawaks paid dearly for their friendliness, because by 1515, 200,000 had been killed by the cruel policies initiated by Columbus [ref.1].

When the young missionary John Chau from Washington State [ref.2] tried to land on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean he was killed. Was this simple xenophobia, or was it for more complicated reasons?

Galileo was strange – not as a person – but his ideas were strange: how could our earth itself not be at the very center of the universe? He was summoned by the Inquisition, accused of heresy, for which the punishment was death, and chose to partially recant. Thus his life was spared and he was put under house arrest. By the way, only in the 1990s did the Church admit that a mistake had been made concerning geocentrism. And I have occasionally wondered what if I were taken prisoner by followers of a caliph – would it not be wiser to say that I worshipped their religion rather than endure torture and hatred?

Being the odd one out has always been risky. Not belonging to the tribe or gang may not end in any killing, but can sometimes be met with fear and misgiving. We are already very diverse in America, more so than most other countries, but to my mind the real and deep understanding of differences, is paramount.

While we have made prodigious advances technologically, our planet – if we are to avoid meaningless massacres – just cannot remain in tribal mode.


1.  “A People’s History of the United States, 1492 - present”, by Howard Zinn; Harper Perennial, 1995.

2. “Death of American Missionary could put this indigenous tribe’s survival at risk”, by Scott Wallace; National Geographic, 11/8/2018.

3. “Why animals ‘adopt’ others including different species”, by Christine Dell’Amore, National Geographic News, May 2013.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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