Simon Brodkin (aka Lee Nelson), a standup comedian hijacked Donald Trump’s election rally by handing out golf balls with swastika signs earlier in June 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
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Why Did Xenophobia Become Dictionary.com’s 2016 Word of the Year?

2016 has been the worst. No, really– think about it.

Or, you could log on to social media and see the deluge of memes made by people bidding good riddance to the trainwreck that was 2016. In fact, the guys over at Spotify seemed so shaken up, they released a series of billboards saying “Thanks, 2016. It’s been weird,” in over 14 markets– their biggest global campaign ever.

Yes, it was that bad. And Dictionary.com’s 2016 Word of the Year really hits the nail on its head. It’s Xenophobia.

What is Xenophobia?

Xenophobia, as defined by Dictionary.com. (Photo: The Quint)
Xenophobia, as defined by Dictionary.com. (Photo: The Quint)

It comes from the Greek words, xénos meaning “stranger, guest,” and phóbos meaning “fear” or “aversion.” The word’s earliest use has been commonly attributed to the author Anatole France in a 1901 novel and is thus said to have French origins.

So what do psychologists think of xenophobia as a disorder? They don’t like it much, truth be told. They prefer using words like prejudice or ethnocentrism to define this fear of strangers.

Social psychologists prefer the use of concepts such as ethnocentrism to define the fear of strangers. (Photo: The Quint)
Social psychologists prefer the use of concepts such as ethnocentrism to define the fear of strangers. (Photo: The Quint)

Xenophobia is mostly used by social scientists, media, political actors and commentators and now, liberal netizens during social media conversations. Unfortunately, they don’t stay true to the word’s roots.

(Get it?)

In the last few years, xenophobia has come to mean a hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities instead of a fear of strangers. In 2016, as Dictionary.com’s selection suggests:

[...] Some of the most prominent news stories have centered around fear of the Other. Fear is an adaptive part of human evolutionary history and often influences behaviours and perceptions on a subconscious level. However, this particular year saw fear rise to the surface of cultural discourse. 

So, What Happened in 2016?

What didn’t happen in 2016?

Did the UK Really Just...Leave the EU?

The largest spike in look-ups for xenophobia was recorded on 24 June, with a 938% increase. What happened on 24 June, you ask? Not much, except the United Kingdom held a referendum and voted to exit the European Union– a relationship of more than four decades. The ‘Leave Campaign’ was mainly fueled by rising hatred towards immigrants, half of whom came from other EU states to study, work and live.

Since then, there has been a clear rise in the number of xenophobic attacks in the UK– the police have reported a 41% increase in the number of hate crimes, especially against Muslims.

Slogans from the Vote Leave campaign are projected on to the base of Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. (Photo: Reuters)
Slogans from the Vote Leave campaign are projected on to the base of Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. (Photo: Reuters)

That Escalated Quickly. It Must Have Been 2016’s Worst...

Ha!

The next big surge in word searches came on 30 June when President Barack Obama, while campaigning for Hillary Clinton during the US presidential elections, said of then candidate, now President-elect, Donald Trump’s political rhetoric:

[It’s] nativism. Or xenophobia. Or worse.

He was right.

Donald Trump’s entire campaign was based on ‘divide and conquer’. He has called Mexican immigrants drug smugglers and “rapists”, supported a Muslim registry, promised hardline anti-immigration policy and often refers to black people and Latinos as “the African-Americans” and “the Latinos”, a key way of Othering a racial group from one’s own.

People carry  ‘Anti-Trump’ signs as they march in a protest against a visit by Donald Trump to an African-American church in Detroit. September 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
People carry ‘Anti-Trump’ signs as they march in a protest against a visit by Donald Trump to an African-American church in Detroit. September 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Trump tapped into the fear of the Other, which is at the very heart of xenophobia and violently amplified it. This can be seen by the entrance of words such as alt-right, post-truth, and even Black Lives Matter in our discourse.

An increased prevalence of words like ‘alt-right’ and ‘post-truth’ can be linking to the increase in xenophobia across the world. (Photo: The Quint)
An increased prevalence of words like ‘alt-right’ and ‘post-truth’ can be linking to the increase in xenophobia across the world. (Photo: The Quint)
An increased prevalence of words like ‘alt-right’ and ‘post-truth’ can be linking to the increase in xenophobia across the world. (Photo: The Quint) 
An increased prevalence of words like ‘alt-right’ and ‘post-truth’ can be linking to the increase in xenophobia across the world. (Photo: The Quint
Trump was endorsed by Neo-Nazis throughout his campaign and- in a chilling reminder of the worst manifestation of xenophobia in recorded history, the Holocaust- saluted his victory with cries of “Hail Trump”.

But Where Are These ‘Feared’ Muslim Immigrants Coming From?

Now in its fifth year, the Syrian civil war has forced nearly half a million citizens to escape the country and find refuge elsewhere. Approximately 2,000 (and counting) Syrians have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, away from their country.

Being a Muslim majority country, these Muslim immigrants are then seen as the foreigners that threaten the identity, space (geological and social) and material interests (jobs, opportunities) of the in-group (natural citizens). This is why many anti-immigration laws are considered Islamophobic (xenophobia involving Muslims), like France’s absurd ban on the burkini.

Internally displaced people, wait to get permission to cross into Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border. February 7, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)
Internally displaced people, wait to get permission to cross into Turkey near the Syrian-Turkish border. February 7, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

And Then There Were Guns...

Gun violence was a pressing concern this year, with 565 people having been killed and 1,856 people wounded in mass shooting incidents in the US. This number peaked in June when, in an act of homophobia, Omar Mateen shot and killed 50 people and wounded 53 more at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Mourners break down at a candlelight vigil held for the victims of the Pulse shooting in Orlando. (Photo: Reuters)
Mourners break down at a candlelight vigil held for the victims of the Pulse shooting in Orlando. (Photo: Reuters)

Racially-targeted police shootings have killed 263 black people in the US this year, with reports confirming 69% of the victims were unarmed at the time of death. In July, the New York Police Department made news when a black police officer went to the press with details of arrest quotas. The police were instructed to complete ‘quotas’ for low-level crimes by senior officials, especially in areas with Hispanics, black people or the poor since they had “less chances of fighting back.”

But India Doesn’t See Xenophobia, Right?

India’s independence in 1947 was at the helm of one of the bloodiest partitions and casused a mass exodus of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, to and from Pakistan. This Islamophobia has always been a part of our public consciousness, exploding in bursts of communal riots in the last six decades.

With the Pathankot and Uri attacks carried out by Pakistani terrorists on Indian army bases, and India’s retaliatory surgical strikes, 2016 saw this xenophobia flare up once again. Any one who dared to argue with or question this ‘anti-Pakistan’ public sentiment was labelled a Pakistani and promptly asked to move to the other side of the border with the likes of Fawad Khan.

Members of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu hardliner group, burn the Pakistani flag to protest against the Uri attacks in September. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu hardliner group, burn the Pakistani flag to protest against the Uri attacks in September. (Photo: Reuters)

In a way, xenophobia and islamophobia lie at the root of the current mood of heightened nationalism in the country: whether it is the continuing existence of the sedition law or the social media rhetoric of “go back to Pakistan” reaching a fever pitch.

Homophobia, or xenophobia involving homosexuals or (loosely) members of the LGBTQ community also trumped (!) in 2016, with the Supreme Court staying a 2009 High Court verdict decriminalising homosexuality– and not having ruled on it still. 

This year also saw incidents of racism against Africans living in India, with as many as seven black people getting attacked in the month of May itself. Kenneth Ignibosa, a Nigerian priest, was attacked while in his car by 15 men, wielding bats, yelling “you leave our country, you Africans.”

Racism is often mistakenly and interchangeably used with xenophobia. (Photo: The Quint)
Racism is often mistakenly and interchangeably used with xenophobia. (Photo: The Quint)