Rome, September 20, 2018 – Fear is one of the most reserved and hidden feelings. But, at the same time, it is also one of the most shared. This apparent paradox is easy to understand: we have strictly personal fears, intimate, hidden, closed, buried in the depths of our insides; and we have collective fears, which involve a family, a certain human group, a community and even a whole society. “Phobia” – a word derived from Greek phóbos – represents a mixed fear. It has a personal side, a kind of persistent panic, sometimes silent, irrational and pathological … But it can infect a whole lot of people, a nation, a city, a culture, against a specific ethnic group, people of another color, sex and religion. When the alleged threat is developed by virtue of fear “to the other, to the foreigner, to the different”, it is, in both cases, xenophobia. The stranger and unknown, in the same way as an unusual novelty, inspires a fear not strange but dark, absurd and disproportionate. 

In other words, everything that is “new” scares, because it flees to routine and daily behavior, to programmed responses, to the habitual attitude. The “other” acquires the function of a mirror: it breaks with every kind of mask, reveals the nakedness of one’s fragility and impotence. Hence the fear of possible risks, foreseeable or unforeseen. The danger knocks on the door and causes panic. It is necessary to build visible or invisible walls in view of self-defense. And such defense, in turn, frequently turns into attack and persecution, intolerance and discrimination, into violence or open persecution. It turns out that fear distances itself little from the extreme forms of neo-Nazis and neo-fascism. The division between “us” and “them” is installed, or between those of “inside” and those of “outside”. From the cultural and religious point of view, the frontier divides, on the one hand, those who speak our language, follow our customs and are guided by our values and, on the other, the foreigners. From the socioeconomic point of view, foreigners are those who threaten our employment, our family and children, our peace and our future. Politically, appeals to the discourse of national security and peace itself.

At this moment, the scenario acquires concrete forms of tension, conflict, intransigence and rejection. When fear expands and becomes generalized among broad sectors of the population, a favorable context is generated for the multiplication of strengths, where hearts, doors and borders are carefully and hermetically closed. Each person or family is protected behind the walls themselves. Part of the media, like true vultures, separates the sense of bad omen. But fear can also be stifled, silenced, disguised and repressed. The silence becomes silence of an aggressiveness repressed at a cost. The oblique looks and the poisoned words cross the air. The member takes the form of a cemetery of hope, where the living is mistaken as frightened and spooky ghosts.

Worst of all when the authorities of a country exploit fear, by electoral campaigns and by political practice in general. If historical crises are a source of fear, threat and danger, such a context becomes the foundation for authoritarianism or totalitarianism, the fuel of dictatorships and tyrants. Fear becomes a populist weapon against popular bases. The sectors of the extreme right, with the flag of an exacerbated nationalism, know how to manipulate fear, directing it against a certain objective – a scapegoat – that can be barbarians and savages, the mad and vagabonds, witches, Jews and Muslims … Or, in the current times, migrants, refugees and the persecuted. In their view, they cross deserts and seas, cross all borders, invade our society, threaten order, ignore our deepest values, the slow and arduous fruit of “centuries of civilization”.

Xenophobic fear, however, can be mastered. The gardener, when cultivating flowers, is careful to eliminate weeds and harmful thorns. Fears are like malignant tumors: they can be analyzed, x-rayed, dissected and submitted to the scalpel. This tears the fabric not to expose it to the looks of others, but to heal it. Dominated and controlled, fears are transfigured as a source of hope, dreams and the construction of alternatives. Here is where the role of the authorities, international organizations, churches, non-governmental organizations, popular organizations and popular movements play an important part.

P. Alfredo J. Gonçalves, cs