Letter to the Editor: Truth versus ego: dissecting xenophobia

When President Dell’Omo met with the Westminster faculty to say they would receive layoff notices, faculty criticized his continuing efforts to sell the college. The president called their critiques “xenophobic.”

The word “xenophobia” is highly charged these days and for that reason alone it is worthwhile to consider what xenophobia is as well as what it is not.

Xenophobia is a portmanteau of Greek words xenos, meaning “strange” or “foreign,” and phobia, meaning “fear.” Thus, xenophobia is a generalized, irrational fear of foreigners.

Of course, generalization can be useful, but when it leads to stereotyping, it can be hurtful, even dangerous. If individual attributes are used to characterize an entire group, for example, we hear phrases like “they” are taking “our” jobs, which implies an “in-group” and an “out-group.” “We” are deserving and “they” are not. 

Despite daily headlines, such bias isn’t breaking news. Some ancient Greeks held their own culture superior to that of all others. They characterized all non-Greeks as “barbarians,” an onomatopoeic word created to mock the “bar-bar-bar” sounds of foreign words. Greek citizens benefited from privileges available only to those in their “in-group.”

We all believe many things, but when confronted with evidence of something we believe is inaccurate, do we scrutinize that belief critically? Do we compare it with those of others and weigh all the facts? Shouldn’t beliefs have a rational basis? And what if we discover there is no factual basis for our belief?

In the face of compelling evidence or its complete absence, people who value truth more than ego change their minds.

At Westminster there is no generalized fear of strangers. The college has always welcomed and celebrated students from around the world. Faculty fears are based on narrow, specific concerns. Moreover, their critiques of Dell’Omo’s plan are substantive and demonstrable, not irrational.

It is a fact Dell’Omo’s buyer has no higher-education experience. It is a fact it has no experience in the realm of professional music. It is a fact this for-profit company has never made a profit in education. It is a fact this business is rated in the lowest tier of peer schools in Beijing, has never graduated a class and has significantly increased its tuition to compensate for the fact its schools are operating at one fifth their capacity. It is a fact this company is controlled by an authoritarian government that suppresses freedom of expression, including academic and religious freedom, and censors artists and their works. And let’s be clear: criticizing a government’s policies is compatible with profound respect for a country’s people and culture.

Faculty have cited specific, rational evidence for all these concerns and more. Dismissing their critiques as “xenophobic” fails to meet the word’s definition.

Which does President Dell’Omo value more, truth or ego? In the face of compelling evidence, he’s made a mistake, can he change his mind?

Joel Phillips

Professor of Composition and Music Theory and AAUP officer

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