Monday, June 9, 2008

Xenophobia and dormitive virtues

As most of you will know, South Africa was wracked by despicable and disturbing nation-wide incidents of xenophobic violence over the last couple of months. This has led, correctly, to much public debate about the causes of xenophobia, the conditions under which it results in violence, and what we can do to prevent it. This week’s edition of the Sunday Independent (South Africa’s best weekly), however, contains a near-perfect example of how not to go about explaining this phenomenon. In “Money and narrow nationalism won’t buy us a rainbow” (full article behind paywall), Colleen Lowe Morna asserts:
Xenophobia… has its roots in the failure to accept “otherness” mixed with misguided notions about the superiority of self. That fragile self is constantly threatened by the potential power of the other whether numerical, social, political or economic.
Well, erm, no. A ‘failure to accept otherness’ is not an explanation of xenophobia, it’s simply a redescription of it. Xenophobia, of course, is the hatred or fear of foreigners; the prefix xeno- derives from the Greek xenos meaning stranger or foreigner and the suffix -phobia derives from phobos, or fear. Obviously, strangers are “other”, hatred and prejudice entails one’s own superiority and a non-acceptance of the “other”. Lowe Morna’s purported explanation is, therefore, literally no better than saying opium causes sleep because it has "dormitive virtues".

Arthur Mutambara’s piece in the same newspaper, “Digging up the roots of xenophobia” (paywall again), illustrates another (far less egregious) failure in the debate so far. While Mutambara’s analysis is crudely simplistic, na├»ve in places and repeatedly factually inaccurate, at least he offers a set of causes that count as a genuine possible explanation. He argues:
At the root of the attacks are the grievances of increased poverty, growing inequality and unemployment, coupled with a deplorable social infrastructure in which health, housing and education are woefully inadequate.
I don’t buy this explanation – it’s clearly causally insufficient and probably doesn’t hold up comparatively – but, as I’ve said, at least it’s a candidate explanation. It is an explanation, however, that focuses exclusively on proximate causes, never mentioning ultimate causes. Why is it that increased poverty, inequality and unemployment where social services are inadequate lead to xenophobic violence? Why doesn't it lead to, oh I don’t know, an irresistible mass urge to recite poetry? Or a sudoku craze? Or anti-albino feeling? We need an account, in other words, of why the social ills Mutambara mentions (or the true proximate causes, whatever they are) lead to xenophobia rather than the infinite number of other possibilities.

In one sense, I admit, the focus on proximate causes is appropriate. There was a time the very same South Africans didn’t commit xenophobic violence (on such a scale, at least), and it’s important to understand what has changed to cause the difference so that we can do something to prevent the violence. But it is possible – perhaps likely – that designing optimum policies to prevent xenophobic violence depends on a full account of the phenomenon, including both proximate and ultimate causes. And evolutionary psychology, of course, has much to say about the ultimate causes of violence and xenophobia.

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