Xenophobia: the irrational fear of that which seems strange, different or foreign.
Emphasis on the word irrational. Despite cherished fantasies about our adventuresome natures, most of us have no real appetite for uncharted waters. Odds are pretty good that if you set me down in a new restaurant, I’m going to order the fish tacos. This is not because fish tacos are my favorite food, but rather because they occupy a safety zone in my subconscious. Unfamiliar place. Crowd noise. Two columns worth of culinary descriptions on a piece of laminated cardboard that accomplish little more than making my eyes unfocus. Server pressing to get the show on the road…
“What’ll you have?”
“Fish tacos, please.”
“Excellent…a bold choice.”
Some might be less inclined toward the comforts of familiarity than I am, but I doubt I sit too far off the curve. One barely notices when a dog brushes past, but let a mouse into the kitchen and all hell breaks loose. Other things being equal, a 25 kilogram canine is a greater potential threat to life and limb than a 25 gram rodent, but one of them is unexpected. More nightmares involve the first day of school than the 147th. Traffic will predictably slow in front of a house with diagonal green stripes painted on the side. We all have an unstated concept of the ordinary against which we measure our experiences. Inevitably, various things fall outside the parameters of “normality”. A horse-drawn carriage on an urban street. A mouse in the kitchen. A trans-woman in the breakroom.
The subconscious registers surprise and generates alertness, bringing the unusual sighting to conscious attention. Additionally, the alert triggers a cascade of effects pre-programmed to preserve the individual. The pulse quickens. The pupils dilate. A wash of chemicals flood various pathways in the brain producing the emotional content of anxiety. Is this xenophobia?
No. The preliminary sub-conscious processes are non-rational, not irrational. Up to this point, the perceiver has not even begun to do that which we would generally label “thinking”. Although we certainly have the capacity (and, I will argue, duty) to condition our reflexes, our reflexes themselves are not culpable. Noticing difference is morally neutral. Heck, I’m probably nearly as surprised as you are when I encounter another trans person. It is what we do after our programmed defenses kick in that constitutes moral or immoral behavior. Xenophobia occurs when one or more of the following things happen:
1. Assignment of moral value to phobias. Suppose the color blue makes me anxious. A stranger approaches me in a brilliant blue shirt. The fear that I feel is real, but it is not a moral principle. It does not follow ethically that wearer is doing something wrong merely because I feel anxious. Indeed, since he can scarcely anticipate my phobia, the wearer has no real opportunity to make a moral decision.
Even if the scenario were altered such that the person knew that blue terrified me and wore it in my presence anyway, the moral offense would still have nothing to do with blue itself, but rather to the act of deliberately causing discomfort, that is to say, being an asshole. At various times I have been told that my gender expression is a metaphorical blue shirt with which I set out to offend. If this were indeed the case, I would be hard pressed to defend it. However, my experience of being transgender, and that of others with whom I have spoken, would be more aptly analogized by reworking the scenario yet again to where it was my skin, and not my clothing, that was blue. Regardless of what fear it provokes in others, it is not something I can simply discard in favor of a more soothing color. If this seems dubious to you, perhaps you can at least accept that I found no way of doing so despite decades of genuinely trying.
2. Codification of phobias through appeal to unassailable principle. “It’s not natural,” I have been told. I have yet to hear this sort of statement backed by a coherent argument. If being transgender (or gay, or left-handed–yes, people really used to believe that too) is unnatural, how can one make sense of the fact that it regularly occurs in nature, albeit in a small minority of persons? Does the uncommonness prove the thesis? Being transgender is 10 times more common than having multiple sclerosis and more than 100 times more common than albinism. Both, last time I checked, were considered to be natural phenomena.
In my experience, the “not natural” argument is always underpinned by the concept of sin. In theory, one could hold that being transgender is unnatural without appealing to religion, and yet every person from which I have heard the line is conservatively religious. How can transgender identity be morally neutral when the Word of God declares:
“A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.”
Never mind that fundamentalist Christians don’t keep Levitical law. They’ll keep this one, or at least demand that I do. And, to be fair, I concede that the biblical proscription against crossdressing is pretty damned unambiguous. There are lots of silly things which the Levitical codes say should be abominations to us. This is one of the few which invokes abomination to God himself, putting trangenderism in the elite company of pride, lying lips, dishonest measures and foreign gods.
Of course not all Christians think this way. If you are one of those fortunates with the capacity to reject hateful bits of scripture, I congratulate you, and wish you the best of luck going forward.
3. Cultivation of narrow horizons. If your friends throw you a surprise birthday party, it may catch you completely off guard. If, however, they throw you a surprise party five years in a row, your capacity for shock rapidly dwindles to nothing. In fact, at that point the only thing they could do to genuinely surprise you is to not throw it. The unexpected has become expected. So it goes with the initial anxieties that might accompany first encounters with diversity.
Human beings have an amazing ability to acclimate. The process requires nothing more than a little time and a certain degree of exposure. However, it is possible to maintain such closed-border, monolithic social circles that the process of acclimatization never occurs. If all your friends are similar in appearance, beliefs, culture, family structure and so on, you might just be too insulated to grow. The iron bars that keep others out are just as certain to keep you in.
Step out of the cage. Embrace difference. Set yourself free.