words : Xenophobia

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Euro-President Jacques Santer has complained that Britain's leaders are stirring up xenophobia, but there is no reason why either the stirrers or the xenophobics themselves will listen, since no one who suffers from this disorder will admit that he has it. Stephen Glover, in a long piece in the Daily Telegraph, suggested that this was because xenophobia is thought politically incorrect, like racism. The Daily Express took a similar line, slamming "intellectuals" who confused xenophobia with patriotism.

I don't think Mr Glover, or the Express, has quite got the answer. A phobia is defined as an irrational fear, an inability to distinguish an imagined danger from an actual one. Phobics really do think their anxieties are based on reason. Claustrophobes know that there is a pretty good chance that the lift-door will fail to open, or that the walls will fall in; agoraphobes are confident that after leaving the house they will forget who they are.

There is no point in telling a xenophobe that foreigners (xenoi in Greek) are harmless. They will only reply that they have every reason to think that their national identity is threatened by them, and that it must therefore be wrong to call them xenophobes, because phobias cannot be rational. Xenophobia, declared the Express, is practically unknown in Britain.

To be fair, one must admit that the word itself is newish; the OED takes it back no further than 1909. Perhaps it wasn't till then that fear of strangers began to be thought unreasonable? Meanwhile the medical encyclopedias list up to 200 recognised forms of phobia. Treatment (we are told) includes exposing the patient, in the company of a trusted companion, to further phobic situations; I'm not sure this would work with some of our extremer Euro-sceptics. The list, by the way, includes phobophobia, an irrational fear of phobias. No doubt someone will start calling Jacques Santer a phobophobic.

Nicholas Bagnall