The Greek word for racism isn’t about a hatred or mistrust for other cultures. Ξενοφοβία is a fear – a phobia – of the stranger. A fear of the unfamiliar, the unknown.

It’s a useful word, helpfully distinguishing between specific hatred and generalised anxiety. It’s also the word that was put to Pauline Hanson in that 1996 interview (yes, it really was that long ago) by Tracey Curro on 60 Minutes. Hanson was asked: “Are you xenophobic?”, to which she infamously replied: “Please explain.”

The opposite of ξενοφοβία is φιλοξενία, a friendship or a love towards the stranger. Φιλοξενία in Greek means hospitality, and if we were to try articulating what the cardinal Greek values are, filoxenia would be high up there.

Greece, a peninsula nation with nearly 14,000km of coastline (more than any other European nation), and some 6,000 islands (of which only a couple of hundred are inhabited), is situated at a crossroads. Encountering strangers is part of daily existence and central to cultural life.

Australia, an island nation with over 70,000km of coastline (the fifth-longest in the world), and some 8,000 islands (again, the number inhabited are in the low hundreds), is situated in relative isolation. Encountering strangers can be an anxiety-inducing challenge of privilege. Especially if that anxiety is exacerbated by the repressed cultural memory of colonisation, where encountered strangers were not only blind to local community and custom but actively violated it – both physically and morally, through the legal fiction of terra nullius. Those strangers thought they could erase the very notions of xenophobia and philoxenia by declaring the locals the strangers and themselves the entitled.

Is the opposite of racism hospitality? Is the opposite of hospitality racism?

These and so many other questions arose from the first Sunday Salon with George Megalogenis on Sunday 7 May. Our topic was Australian Values – the impossibility of articulating them; the ease with which they can be used to wedge the political agenda. As ever, George offered detailed analyses of our current political impasse, as well as generous responses to questions, making for a memorable evening’s discussion. 

Just as Australia’s Second Chance analyses those self-destructive periods when we closed our doors to immigrants, in Sunday Salon conversation George outlined the moments throughout our political history when an appeal to Australian values has been made. Whether it’s been John Howard, Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull, each time the appeal has been made it has not been a constructive conversation-starter to nurture a confident culture, but rather, a populist distraction for a government flagging in popularity. Australian values are evoked as a political convenience, and far too often as an indirect attack on other cultures.

Apart from its populism, what motivates that appeal to values precisely at those moments where economic management should be translating into national vision? Is it an anxiety, a fear that the national conversation risks straying into unfamiliar territory as we imagine an unknown future? Is it a nostalgia, a yearning for the familiar and the known? 

If we recognise racism as an anxiety towards a personified unknown, we strip it of its ugliness – and yet, its manifestation as ugly attacks on specific cultures and specific people cannot be ignored. The vilification of Yassmin Abdel-Magied for a social media post reminding us of Australia’s responsibilities towards vulnerable people has been one such ugly example. 

If, as George outlines in his latest column for the New York Times, the ethics of Australian public are shifting further left, then one of the few moves available to the conservative public conversation is to become more shrill, more desperate in its language and its reach. Overwhelmingly outnumbered by the foreign-born and the children of the foreign-born, the unreflective white Australian is increasingly outmoded, finding it more and more difficult to declare himself the entitled and the locals the strangers. 

Xenophobia is disappointingly plastic, finding ever-new shapes and forms in contemporary life. Inevitably, racism will sink into a mire of its own creation, while xenophobia will be met with pity and concern. It’s a vile race to the bottom in the meantime, and it’s up to all of us to call it out when we see it.

Join us for the Sunday Salon at Neapoli Wine Bar every Sunday 4:00-6:00pm from 7 May to 18 June. Join the Facebook group and follow the #SundaySalons discussion on Twitter.



IMAGE: Sunday Salon No. 1 at Neapoli Wine Bar. Photo by Nik Pandazopoulos.