By HUNTER SAVERY ’20
Can we define 2016 in a single word? According to dictionary.com, yes. That word is xenophobia. The website defines xenophobia as “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.” Fear of the “other” has certainly pervaded the news cycle for the last year, not only in the United States, but also across the globe, particularly in Western nations. Dictionary.com chose the word based on a spike in search entries for the word in the past year, and due to the apparent international trends. In a similar vein, Merriam-Webster recently tweeted that their word of the year is on track to be fascism. The year 2016 saw the Syrian refugee crisis, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right movement in America, and the coups de grâce, Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President. The past year has been a strenuous one, and an unfortunate reaction that has arisen for many, is fear of the “other.”
Xenophobia is not an old word, its first use dates to the 19th century. Dictionary.com traces its etymology to a combination of two Greek words: “xénos meaning ‘stranger, guest,’ and phóbos meaning ‘fear, panic.’”
In Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis created quite a bit of unease among many native Europeans. That uneasiness was exacerbated by incidents such as the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks orchestrated by the so-called Islamic State. Politically, this led to a rise in right and far-right wing nationalist groups across the continent. Fear of Muslim immigrants was not limited to Europe though, as many Americans were outraged over the very possibility of offering shelter to Syrian refugees. American concerns manifested in Donald Trump’s proposed unconstitutional ban on Muslim immigrants “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Unfortunately, the theme of keeping non-WASPs out of America was not limited to a ban on Muslim immigrants. One of the themes most central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was the infamous border wall with Mexico. Many Trump supporters were simply elated by the notion of a physical barrier between them and the other. Trump promised a hard-line immigration and deportation policy, which was applauded by scared white people in general, and more specifically, former Ku Klux Klan leader and white supremacist, David Duke. Trump was hesitant to reject the hatemonger’s support, and white nationalist groups across the country have rallied behind the president-elect. The alt-right movement, a euphemistic name for a white nationalist movement, was an early fan of Trump, who surprised many by naming one of the movement’s leaders, Steve Bannon, as chief executive of his presidential campaign. Bannon had formerly been executive chair of Breitbart News, a far-right wing news agency. On Nov. 13, he was named chief strategist and senior counselor to President-elect Trump. It is readily apparent that the next President of the United States has deep ties to xenophobia.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, an American nonprofit legal advocacy group that tracks hate groups, reported that 10 days after the election, “there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation.” Though Donald Trump’s campaign may not have officially supported extremist groups, it is clear that white supremacists and bigots across the country felt energized, and even validated, by the Trump victory. The trouble is that avowed white supremacists were not the only people who voted for Donald Trump. In fact, over 62 million Americans did. They voted for a man who, in reference to Mexican immigrants, said, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Well, at least Trump knows that not all of them are rapists.
Ten years ago Merriam-Webster declared the word of the year to be “truthiness.” This word was coined by comedian Stephen Colbert and means “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” Truthiness was a prescient choice for Word of the Year at that time. Ten years down the road, the world is dealing with the consequences of living in what many are calling a post-fact world. Xenophobia is embraced, thanks to politicians and leaders who validate fear of the “other,” despite the lack of sound reasoning behind a border wall or a ban on Muslim immigration. In 2016, the facts simply did not matter to much of the voting populace. Dictionary.com put it well, “Despite being chosen as the 2016 Word of the Year, xenophobia is not to be celebrated. Rather it’s a word to reflect upon deeply in light of the events of the recent past.” One can only hope that the 2017 Word of the Year is a bit more positive.