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19 September 2018

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Xenophobe's Paradox

Author: Paul E. Richardson

Nov/Dec 2015
Page 4   ( 1 pages)

Summary: The more foreign things you forbid or ignore, the smaller and less safe your world becomes.


As everyone well knows, hare and squirrel, while both furry forest animals, are rather different species. And, since they live in close proximity to one another, and are so different, they often have disputes. So they needed to find a way to get along. Each came up with a different solution.

Squirrel, for its part, decided it would mind its own business. So long as the hare did not try to tell it what to do, everything would be fine.

Hare, meanwhile, decided the best solution was to forbid all things squirrel. As long as nothing squirrel-like invaded hare-dom, there could be no conflict.

The paradox, however, was that the more squirrel minded his own business and ignored what hare was doing, the less aware he was of how his own actions were affecting hare. Conversely, the more hare expanded the range of squirrel things banned, the smaller hare’s world became.

Thus was born what is known as the Xenophobe’s Paradox: The more foreign things you forbid or ignore, the smaller and less safe your world becomes. This is because the only thing not foreign to a being is that which is inside their own skin, and everyone knows it is impossible to survive on just what you are made of.

No man is an island, the poet John Donne wrote. But what about a nation or state? Can it be an island “entire of itself”? In our internet-connected world, it is reflexive to scoff at such an old-fashioned notion. But even before computers and smartphones the world was a very connected place. As we read in this issue, it was Italians who designed much of the Kremlin that is thought to be “so distinctly Russian” (page 28), and it was Russian troops that two hundred years ago took immense risks to defend “innate Swiss independence” from the invading Napoleon (page 46).

The more I read and hear of embargoes and exclusions, whether it be trade in cheese or transmission of music, transit of air flights or travel of bureaucrats, I can’t help wondering if such actions make impossible the very outcome they strive for. Yes, I understand where they are coming from: the desire to shape another nation’s or person’s behavior through actions short of violence, or to preserve the purity of Us by filtering out the “contaminants” spread by Them.

But can we really hope to change the world for the better by penning people in or closing them out? Does a culture or nation really become stronger by building higher walls, or does it just become more isolated?

Unfortunately, these are not new questions, nor are they ones we can expect to answer any time soon. But we should keep struggling with them. And so I will leave you with the full stanza to Donne’s poem, which seems apropos of our times even though it was written nearly 500 years ago.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

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