The coastal populations of Mediterranean countries lived for decades, stretching into centuries, with the fear of pirates, the strange invaders suddenly appearing from the sea. Inhabitants of regions bordering with sparsely settled or frontier territories lived in fear of the sudden appearance of “barbarians” or “savages,” variously labeled according to time and locale. With the increased sameness of living conditions brought on by progress and technological advance, there now remain far fewer parts of the world where the fear of strange invaders is part of daily life. But is the fear of people that are unlike us still in the background, perhaps below the threshold of full awareness, but active nonetheless in driving our reactions, and sometimes our prejudice and discrimination?
The Strange Attraction of the Strange
Without attempting a comprehensive definition of racial diversity, at a very minimum, physical differences in appearance often appear to be the first (and sometimes the only) trigger of a psychological defense mechanism. In most human beings, there appears to be an innate drive to self-preservation that may be activated in the presence of individuals we may not recognize as familiar to us.
Often, there appears to be an instinctive and uncontrollable stress reaction that mobilizes our psychological, and at times also physical defenses against what we perceive as a possible threat from another human being. This is by no means a new phenomenon. As the coastal villagers and the frontier dwellers, we know that our own survival depends on being able to accurately assess any potential threat to ourselves and to our families and possessions, and take the most appropriate action (fight, flee or do something else) toward self-protection.
Clearly, not everyone we meet who is not like us is automatically a physical or psychological threat to our well-being. Indeed, even those who appear to be exactly like us, in race, language, culture and background, may turn out to be a severe threat. In ensuring survival, it pays to be alert to any potential danger. As President Reagan once put, Trust But Verify is a wise policy to live by, in politics but also in business and in interpersonal relations.
In some ways, we are attracted to the strange and the unfamiliar. Our attention is automatically directed to it, out of simple curiosity, concern or fear. When a different physical appearance is thrown in the mix, the perceived threat may be magnified by real or imaginary thoughts of danger and risk. Paradoxically, there is also a part of us that is attracted to risky or dangerous situations, which does nothing to simplify the cacophony of feelings that are triggered by the sudden appearance in our midst of the strange and the mysterious.
A Universal Phenomenon
It appears that no particular group of human beings is immune to this type of consideration when coming in contact with strangers. There is certainly also an economic factor that plays a role, as when the need to defend one’s income or property, ends up taking precedence over solidarity and cooperation with the stranger. It has been observed that people down on their luck, destitute, physically ill, or in need of urgent help seem to exhibit a tendency to be far less discriminating or threatened by the stranger than those who, by their own definition, may have a lot more to lose in such encounters. Thankfully, human solidarity seems to shed at least part of its suspicions and reservations in the face of natural disasters or man-made calamities. There are indeed moments in time when we realize that we are all humans, that we share a common identity, and that we inhabit this small planet together, if not always at peace with each other.
Our God-given capacity to muster our defenses against potential threats is a powerful asset, whose importance should not be overlooked even in a world where physical danger has been greatly diminished (though certainly not eliminated) by the safeguards of civilization. Imagine would it would be like to automatically and unthinkingly assume that everyone we meet is friendly, honest, kind and has our best interest at heart. Unrealistic, naive? Yes, and I would also say, definitely dangerous to our personal and collective well-being.
Being aware that we possess the gift of discriminating between the real and the perceived, the dangerous and the annoying, the severe and the trivial can help us realize that it is the way we normally are and to make the best use of it. Racial discrimination may be caused by an overuse of this important asset. To automatically assume that anyone not like us (by various definitions) is a dangerous threat is clearly discriminatory, exaggerated and ultimately detrimental to our own well-being. We are societal beings, by nature, and isolating ourselves from large swatches of humanity may be an attempt at self-defense, but one that clearly exceeds the intent and the practice of reasonable threat assessment. Unreasonable fear and loneliness often travel together.