Saturday, December 09, 2006

Xenophobia - Botswana Guardian

I’ve been thinking about xenophobia. We can’t avoid it these days, it’s one of those fashionable words that suddenly become the in thing.

Whether it’s to do with foreign investment, the Basarwa relocation issue or the termination of expatriate’s work permits it’s a word that keep on cropping up.

People seem to think that xenophobia means a fear of foreigners but that’s not actually true. It’s much wider than that. It actually means a fear of the unknown. It can be anything, not just an unknown or perhaps strange-looking human being. You can be xenophobic about someone from the next village, not just someone from a different continent.

To some extent I suppose that it’s a natural reaction. If you think back a few hundred thousand years to when humanity was in it’s infancy, being afraid of something new was probably a very wise approach. The new, unknown thing really might want to eat you. Although we’ve moved forward a long way, there’s a huge part of each one of us that remains back in the primitive days, showing primitive reactions.

You see it all over the world of course. The list of places where xenophobia has led to death and destruction is endless. Rwanda and Burundi, Serbia and Croatia and, now I get really depressed, the Middle East. Despite reasonably successful efforts at reconciliation there are still issues in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and even in South Africa. In fact it’s probably easier to list the places where there hasn’t been any history of xenophobic conflict. Well, it would be if I could think of any. Iceland perhaps?

But just because something is “natural” that doesn’t mean we should just accept it. We all have so-called natural instincts that we know we shouldn’t give in to. I’m a man, I know these things! And just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. In the same way, just because something is “unnatural” it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Condoms, hypodermic syringes and newspapers aren’t “natural” but they are all wonderful inventions that do untold good.

I’m a firm believer in understanding our nature, where we come from and what our instincts are but I also believe we are smart enough, have developed a sufficient understanding of what’s right and wrong and most importantly have sufficient self-control to overcome our more primitive instincts. Whether it’s an instinct to steal, fight or rape we all know these things are wrong and repulsive and we shouldn’t do them. Saying it’s natural is no excuse. Saying that you can’t overcome your instincts is nonsense.

The same goes for that specific type of xenophobia: our fear of strangers. Just because your instinct says you should reject someone who looks different to you, well that doesn’t make it right.

Surely we all know that people vary? Isn’t that one of the most interesting thing about our miserable species? Isn’t it actually rather wonderful that if you walk though one of our many shopping malls you see people of every shape, size and colour?

I’d go so far as to suggest we need to adopt a new approach. Xenophilia. A love for the unknown, the new and even what we might call strange. Let’s start welcoming variety. It doesn’t mean we all have to change ourselves, just that we should see new people and things as challenging, interesting and maybe even exciting

One last question. Where would we be now if Seretse and Ruth had both been xenophobic?