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Xenophobia, the hostility towards strangers, depends on external characteristics. It is wrongly equated with xenophobia, but that is not true. Literally, xenophobia is the fear of someone from another country. But xenophobia targets people who look "different" - not necessarily those who have a different passport.
Naturalizing explanations assume that demarcation, fear and hostility towards strangers are biologically anchored. Accordingly, it is a reflex to protect yourself and your own group.
In fact, in mythologies worldwide, the monsters appear on the fringes of the familiar - outside the village, tribe, or clan. However, the naturalizing explanations are mostly justifications. Because curiosity is also a human quality, and that includes curiosity about strangers.
Instead, xenophobia, like any hostility or fear, can be stirred up or changed. Toddlers "alien" and are just as curious. “Foreign” means first of all that people who do not know them are literally scary. At the same time, they are interested in them.
It all starts with education
Collective xenophobia is by no means innate, but produced by society. The own group defines itself by attributing negative qualities to other groups and injecting into their children that the others have these qualities.
Since a toddler relies on the knowledge of adults, it sees their stories as truth - regardless of whether it is Santa Claus, the good Lord or the "child-eating stranger". Curiosity about strangers could be stirred up just as well as hostility.
Curiosity about the stranger
Every traveler away from the usual tourist routes, whether in Tanzania, Venezuela or Thailand, will always see the same behavior in children. A little caution, but above all curiosity that can hardly be tamed.
Anyone who was surrounded by a crowd of dozens of children in a village in the Atlas Mountains or a settlement in Assam, who are enthusiastic about everything from the way the "white man" writes his diary to the mysterious content of his cosmetic bag, can do so through the "Inborn xenophobia" just shake your head.
Xenophobia - a personality disorder
Pronounced xenophobia is considered a mental disorder. It is a specific anxiety disorder that is often associated with other anxiety disorders. Conversely, people suffering from a general anxiety disorder can project this fear onto strangers.
The disorder differs from resentment in that it has psychotic features. So those affected develop delusions.
Psychologically, it is not so much hostility towards strangers, but an actual phobia, an exaggerated fear that in reality only finds an object. Psychological xenophobia is therefore comparable to mouse phobia, spider phobia or sociophobia.
Sociophobia and fear of loss
Sociophobia is particularly evident in xenophobia. Someone who suffers from this is generally afraid of social relationships with people. He is least afraid of people he knows very well. The less he knows her, the greater his fear becomes. Conversely, he is not particularly xenophobic because his fear is not based on external characteristics.
The pathological fear of strangers can be based on a perceptual disorder. Then those affected no longer see the cause of problems where it is, for example due to the death of their parents, unemployment or divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, problems at work, but in the construct of the stranger who is responsible for everything bad. Therapy starts here to bring the patient back to their sense of reality.
A special form of pathological xenophobia is also an extraordinary fear of loss, which is associated with a fear of any change. Those affected cling to a past that no longer exists per se, and every change in their living environment now triggers fears.
These fears manifest themselves, for example, when people move into the neighboring house who have dark skin tones, speak a different language and behave differently than those affected know from their living environment.
Hatred of people
In a narrow psychological sense, xenophobia is an anxiety disorder. For the social exclusion of groups of people, this psychological term would play down. Behind group-related misanthropy there is no phobia as exaggerated fear, but hate - namely hatred of people. For example, if you suffer from cat phobia, you don't hate cats.
On the contrary: Some of those affected know rationally that cats are friendly animals and would like to approach them. Likewise, many people who are afraid of strangers in a psychological sense know that it is their own fear and not the characteristics of the stranger.
Xenophobes, on the other hand, rarely have an anxiety disorder in a psychological sense. They are concerned with upgrading themselves and their own group and therefore excluding groups that they define as different, restricting their rights or even destroying them.
All anxiety disorders are primarily passive in nature. Xenophobia, however, is active.
A binding disorder?
However, misanthropy can be pathological: Some people lack the basic trust that is built in the first three years of life through an intimate bond with mother and father.
If this bond is disturbed, anxiety disorders can solidify, resulting in a general distrust of other people. Such people are very easily irritable in social relationships, cannot respond to conflicts in a constructive manner and often suffer from depression. They see no meaning in their life.
Some of them, in the search for belonging, join groups that define themselves through hatred of other (arbitrarily constructed) groups of people and find a supposed meaning in hate crime towards others. In the other they pursue what they did not experience. They often attack the very people to whom they attach particularly close ties to the family.
The question of whether it was the chicken or the egg first can hardly be answered. Studies of criminal neo-Nazis in eastern Germany, however, came to the conclusion that a large number of those examined had conspicuous personality disorders - in particular a dissocial character. In other words: the lack of empathy already existed and fascism offered the appropriate ideology.
What to do about misanthropy
This misanthropy in the psychological sense characterizes the perverted protection of a person who was seriously psychologically injured in childhood. He didn't get the affection he longed for, and the grief about it turns into hate.
Those affected suffer from a deficit in receiving love and giving love. The disturbed bond with others changes to hatred and envy towards others. Those affected feel like a predator who is cornered and believes they have to defend themselves.
The earlier treatment starts, the greater the chances that those affected will come out of their inner prison out of hatred, fear and loneliness. It is not enough that they just meet a friendly person, but they have to learn to maintain social relationships in a tough treatment.
Describing racism as "fear of strangers" beautifully colors political racism. Those who are afraid hide, they can't open their mouths, cold sweat breaks out for them.
Racism is not a pathology like an anxiety disorder. On the contrary: it is a conscious political attitude. Racists claim privileges from people who portray them as "inferior".
They make a conscious decision to set fire to refugee homes or to beat up migrants. They plan their acts of hate crime and are fully responsible for them. It is eyewash to explain hate crimes by racists with justified or exaggerated fear. Fears have to be respected, be it in the sense of therapy.
"Understanding" "fears" by racists easily excuses racism. Racists are also masters at stirring up fears that they themselves don't have: they invent crimes that they would commit to make "others", and many people are afraid of these crimes.
The explanations in several bourgeois media for racist violence are wrong. AfD politicians, the Pegida mob in Dresden, neo-Nazis who set fire to refugee homes or invent atrocities by migrants are not "afraid of alienation".
A bunch of "rage citizens" who watched clapping and eating bratwurst as people sat in the burning refugee home in Rostock-Lichtenhagen are just as unafraid as citizens in the Middle Ages who enjoyed the spectacle of a public execution.
Anyone who is overly scared is always a victim. Anyone who discriminates, hurts or kills other people out of hatred and calculation, is neither overly afraid, nor is he a victim. He is only a perpetrator. With the talk of "fear of foreign infiltration" those affected only present themselves as victims.
Racism is not an anxiety disorder
A racist is not afraid, but wants to claim special rights through origin, descent, skin color, language or religion and deny them to others. He denies general and inalienable human rights.
Racists do this deliberately because this is the only way to justify slavery, colonialism and genocide. In doing so, they consciously stir up xenophobia. They put a negative stamp on the “black man” - regardless of whether it is his way of life, his religion or his appearance.
Racists build on prejudices, ignorance and unwillingness to reflect on their own group. As a rule, this is an independent group that enjoys certain privileges. However, racism is also rampant among minorities who are underprivileged when racists who feel they belong to them represent the minority as a "chosen race".
Even running with racist hate preachers cannot be explained primarily out of fear. The unwillingness to self-reflection is not due to a lack of intellectual skills, but to selfishness - the supporters of racist parties do not want to share with the “strangers” what they have or think they have.
That is why they cannot be dissuaded from their hate images with enlightenment. Some established Germans with a migration background from Turkey, Italy or Syria, for example, are rushing against asylum seekers from the Middle East in a way that is reminiscent of NPD round tables or AfD party conferences.
The same applies to some East Germans who came to West Germany in 1990 as "economic refugees". It would be pointless to explain to them that they themselves are migrants. They know that too well. On the contrary, they rush against the "new strangers" because they don't even want to give others a few crumbs of bread from the table where they sat down.
Terms such as “fear of foreigners” or even “justified fear” hide the fact that it is about selfishness and anti-social thinking. Of course, hardly anyone admits this openly. "I want everything just for me" is worse than saying "I'm worried about my country."
How does racism express itself?
Racism manifests itself in the fact that people are discriminated against, harassed and attacked on the basis of their origin, skin color, "culture" or other characteristics arbitrarily constructed by the racist.
It is essential for racism: The individual does not matter. The racist is not interested in whether the new neighbor from Syria fled ISIS or murdered people for ISIS. Racists are not interested in how the discriminated person defines himself.
Rather, the racist assigns individuals to a group, which the racist provides with stereotypes that he himself constructed. Even if the behavior of the defamed person contradicts these stereotypes, the racist pushes it back into the stereotypes.
Racism manifests itself in discrimination and harassment. He begins to distance himself from the "other", continues to mock the culture under his control or to portray it as dangerous.
Then physical harassment follows. The victim is spat on, beaten or kicked because, in the eyes of the racist, he belongs to a certain group of people. It does not matter whether this is actually the case. For example, after the attack on the WTC in Arizona, a Sikh was shot by a racist because the racist thought he was a Muslim Arab.
Contempt is much more widespread than physical violence. For example, the racist refuses to sit on the train next to someone who allegedly belongs to the discriminated group.
He ascertains the privileges of the own group by telling contemptuous jokes about other groups such as Turks, Arabs or asylum seekers. He doesn't want to sit in an office with a new colleague whom he doesn't know personally because he has a Turkish, Iranian or Arabic name.
Foreign fear as an anxiety disorder
The widespread topos of "fear of foreigners" not only obscures the motivation of racists, but also distorts xenophobia as an anxiety disorder in a psychological sense.
An anxiety disorder is not a normal fear, but exposes those affected to constant negative stress that hinders them in everyday life. Anxiety fantasies increase in the minds of those who are disturbed and are increasingly confirmed.
It is not about a concrete threat, but about fantasies "what if". Those affected continue to narrow their own radius of life. Some never leave their home.
Transferred to the fear of strangers. The mere idea that "strangers" rob, rape or murder those affected has such a real and threatening effect that patients hardly dare to leave the house.
The causes are many. Sexual abuse, psychological violence by a parent, physical violence, loss, separation or death of the parents, lack of recognition during puberty and childhood prevent a child from learning to deal with anxiety and not perceiving challenges as a threat.
Trauma and secession
Those who were traumatized in their childhood split off this experience and survived psychologically. But the experience can recur in the form of an anxiety disorder. For example, if an abused child separates the raping father into a good and a bad father in order to be able to bind himself to the good one, this can trigger later projections on “strangers”.
The adult now sees the “bad father” in the construct of the “asylum seeker who rapes German women” without being aware of it. It is precisely part of a trauma that those affected are not aware of their separation.
In contrast to the racist agitator, who knows that he is rushing and does this consciously, the fear of the traumatized is real. They themselves do not know why their hearts are racing, why they cannot concentrate or why they do not fall asleep at night.
If the victim then finds an “explanation” for their fear in the stranger, it is not only bad for the victim of the projection, but also for the traumatized themselves. They do not heal themselves, but only solidify their disorder. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
- German Society for Psychosomatic Medicine and Medical Psychotherapy (DGPM): S3 guideline for anxiety disorders, status: April 2014, detailed guideline view
- University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE): Social phobia (access: August 12, 2019), psychenet.de
- Federal Ministry of Education and Research: Fear of people - study shows: psychotherapy helps with social phobia (accessed: August 12, 2019), gesundheitsforschung-bmbf.de
- Bassler, Markus / Leidig, Stefan: Psychotherapy for anxiety disorders, Thieme, 2005
- Stangier, Ulrich / Clark, David M. / Ginzburg, Denise M. / u.a .: Social Anxiety Disorder, Hogrefe Verlag; 2nd edition, 2016
ICD codes for this disease: F40ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.