‘Oikophobia’: The West’s Toxic Self-Hatred (Film+Essay)

History shows us that oikophobia—the felt need to denigrate one’s own cultural home—arises when a culture begins to decline. In order to understand oikophobia, then, we must see it as a predictable socio-historical phenomenon. Just as early civilizational phases tend to be naturally conservative and xenophobic, late civilizational phases tend to be naturally progressive and oikophobic. Oikophobia has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of our society, its culture, politics, and military. Its result is a culture and society so fixated on internal squabbles that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward as a unified force.

Text by Benedict Beckeld for The American Conservative and Quillette

PART 1

Almost everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of people who blame their own country or civilization for everything, who feel embarrassed about their own culture. There is a word for this: “oikophobia,” fear of home, the opposite of xenophobia, fear of foreigners. We see oikophobia when people tear down statues of their nation’s heroes, rename schools named after founding fathers, consider America rooted in racism with few redeeming features, and so on. We are all familiar with oikophobia, but it is not a uniquely modern perversion. Rather, it has taken hold in many civilizations before our own, typically in a civilization’s declining days. In order to understand oikophobia, then, we must see it as a predictable socio-historical phenomenon. Just as early civilizational phases tend to be naturally conservative and xenophobic, late civilizational phases tend to be naturally progressive and oikophobic.

In fact, ever since antiquity, Western civilizations or cultures have cyclically evolved from naive self-promotion in their beginnings to self-loathing in their periods of decline. A study of civilizations through time—of the major political events and literatures of, for example, ancient Athens, Rome, France, Britain, and the United States—reveals how events and ideologies cause oikophobia, and how, today, they have created a culture of self-rejection. While these things have not happened in exactly the same way in every Western culture, oikophobia is a phenomenon of mass psychology and human nature—both of which do not, and cannot, change.

As a general matter, when a civilization progresses and grows more successful, there is enough wealth and power for people to focus more on competing against their peers than preserving the health of their communities. Diverse interests arise, leading citizens to view one another as threats greater than those posed by foreign enemies. Since foreign enemies have been successfully repulsed during a civilization’s rise to power, they no longer serve as effective targets for a civilization’s sense of superiority. And human psychology, which often builds human identity around an adversary, thus crafts a new adversary: other people in one’s own civilization, and ultimately, the civilization itself. By rejecting one’s own culture as backward, an individual can set himself above other, competing interests of that culture. Earlier in the arc of civilizational development, when the state is poorer and individuals more reliant on one another for basic security, cooperation is essential for survival. But as a society becomes more affluent, there is greater opportunity for citizens to criticize their own culture.

Civilizations rise and must inevitably decline and fall. It is precisely the process that begets a civilization’s success that leads to its decline and fall. To take only one example among many: The gradual expansion of citizenship in the Roman Republic and subsequently Empire increased the number of fighting men. Those men felt that they, as equal citizens, had a personal stake in the welfare of the state. But this expansion of citizenship also led to expanding notions of equality. The more that people feel equal and empowered, the more they consider themselves more important than the state. This, in turn, leads to internecine conflict among interest groups. And so expanding citizenship, from the point of view of the state, has both positive and negative consequences, and is an example of the larger truth that the same process that leads to a civilization’s rise will also lead to its fall. Thus, oikophobia is just as “natural” as xenophobia.

Oikophobia generally arises when the culture has reached its peak and begun its decline—which for the aforementioned states would be ancient Athens in the late 5th century B.C., Rome in the early Empire, France in the mid-18th century, Britain in the late Victorian era, and the United States after World War II. The oikophobe comes to regret the exploits of his culture and the injustices and sufferings that will always attend a people’s rise.

As has been the case in other civilizations, oikophobes in the United States dominate in left-wing areas. Non-oikophobes and, in some cases, xenophobes and anti-oikophobic reactionaries dominate in right-wing areas. (For ancient civilizations, of course, the labels “progressive” and “conservative” are more appropriate than “left” and “right.”) Oikophobia has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of our society, its culture, politics, and military. Its result is a culture and society so fixated on internal squabbles that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward as a unified force.

It is by understanding oikophobia that we can hope to combat it. Once we realize that oikophobia is a pathology that develops in a predictable socio-historical context, we are better equipped to deal with it in our politics. We should always be aware of our civilization’s shortcomings, and be open to what other civilizations may teach us. But in examining past cultures we see that oikophobia—the felt need to denigrate one’s own cultural home—is a common historical recurrence. This, in turn, will allow us to better understand some of our cultural predicaments today.

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PART 2

It was an Italian evening in late summer at the end of the previous decade, and I was having dinner outside in the shade of the Roman Colosseum—the emblem of a decadent Empire whose ruins were everywhere to be seen. One of my fellow diners, a young graduate student of Ancient History, suddenly made the disquieting observation that she could never speak ill of another culture. Not only was she unable to do so, but in fact she emphasized that she did not even have the right to do so. When I asked her, alluding to her own Austrian roots, what she might say of a culture that produced, say, Adolf Hitler, she replied that she as an Austrian European may criticize European and Austrian culture, and consequently that brutal dictator.

My follow-up question, whether then by her logic a non-Austrian or non-European should not be allowed to criticize Nazism, did not receive a clear reply. But my fellow diner continued to insist that we should only criticize our own cultures, never others. I thus had one of my frequent meetings with the intellectually bankrupt posture of oikophobia, the hatred or dislike of one’s own cultural home. Significantly, my interlocutor was a part, or at least a future part, of our social elite: a Ph.D. in the making, generally quick-witted, and with a mastery of several languages, both modern and ancient. I looked up at the Colosseum, whose dark and gaping ruin reminds us that all things will perish: our own civilization is heading your way.

This exchange was similar to many that I have had in countries all around the Western world. They reveal a civilization that has stopped believing in itself, that hates itself, and that is therefore unwilling to defend the values of individual freedom, democracy, and scientific and scholarly skepticism that have been handed down to us since antiquity. We are all familiar with this phenomenon, and every single day brings news stories in which oikophobia is involved. To mention just a couple among literally thousands of clearly oikophobic incidents of recent times: this past July the San Francisco School Board voted to remove a mural of George Washington from one of its public schools because of its purported racism; the group leader of American volunteer teachers in Africa some years ago informed the volunteers that residing in a foreign culture had taught her that the United States deserved the 9/11 terrorist attacks because of U.S. foreign policy (I know this because I was one of the volunteers). Actions and statements of this kind have become perfectly commonplace by now, and we all know about them, but most people cannot explain why things are this way. How can it have come to such cultural self-hatred? The answer lies in an oft-repeated historical process that takes a society from naïve and self-promoting beginnings to self-contempt and decline.

The simplest way of defining oikophobia is as the opposite extreme of xenophobia. As xenophobia means the fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners, so oikophobia means the fear or hatred of home or one’s own society or civilization, oikos being the ancient Greek word for home, house, household. The term was coined in this sense by British philosopher Roger Scruton in 2004, in his book England and the Need for Nations. He calls oikophobia “the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’” As the title of his book suggests, Scruton is mainly concerned with England, and so within this framework he places the rise of oikophobia after World War II. There is much truth to this, but it is also true, to go beyond Scruton, that the oikophobe occurs and recurs throughout history. The oikophobia that developed after World War II is therefore only the latest manifestation of the phenomenon, and nothing truly new. The reason why we are experiencing oikophobia in the United States today is that we are in about the same phase of historical development now as England was after World War II, or a little earlier: a great power, but on the decline.

So oikophobia is a natural outgrowth of the way cultures, and certainly Western cultures, develop. It occurred in ancient Greece, in Rome, in the French and British empires, and now in the United States. To give a very brief overview of this development, we may say that in the beginning, a people relatively uncivilized and uncultured, but possessed of great mobility and untested strength, awakens and, as it were, goes to war in service of its deities. Initial successes against surrounding peoples lead to greater wealth and prestige, and a national identity is forged, accompanied by literary epics and other accoutrements of culture. Eventually, the people reaches its pinnacle of success, with so much wealth that a broad and permanent leisure class can be established, and this era of greatest political power will generally coincide, more or less, with the pinnacle of the nation’s cultural and scientific achievements. There is finally enough wealth and power for the leisure class, and in many cases for people lower on the social ladder as well, to become more occupied with achieving higher states of wealth and prestige vis-à-vis their countrymen than they are with the health of the community itself.

This is where oikophobia sets in. Diverse interests are created that view each other as greater enemies than they do foreign threats. Since the common civilizational enemy has been successfully repulsed, it can no longer serve as an effective target for and outlet of people’s sense of superiority, and human psychology generally requires an adversary for the purpose of self-identification, and so a new adversary is crafted: other people in the same civilization. Since this condition of leisure and empowerment, as well as a perception of external threats as non-existential, are the results of a society’s success, success is, ironically, a prerequisite for a society’s self-hatred. What Freud has called the “narcissism of small differences” (in Civilization and Its Discontents)—the urge to compete against others even through minor distinctions like a virtuous action or the newest gadget—becomes one motivation through which a particular interest expresses its superiority over others.

This “domestic” competition means that by rejecting one’s culture as backward, one automatically sets oneself above all the other interests that are parts of that culture. Earlier in the civilizational development, the cooperation of a larger proportion of the people is essential for survival at a time when the state is poorer and individuals more reliant on one another for basic security. But once the society has taken off and become affluent, there is greater opportunity to excel and more room, therefore, for people to start criticizing their own culture in an effort to get ahead personally. People are always self-interested, of course, but the gulf between immediate self-interest and the interest of the state is smaller when the state itself is smaller and weaker.

As has been the case in other civilizations, insofar as the political terms of “left” and “right” may have been applicable to them (“progressive” and “conservative” are often more appropriate for ancient civilizations), the oikophobes dominate in left-wing areas, while non-oikophobes and, in some cases, xenophobes and anti-oikophobic reactionaries dominate in right-wing areas. The increased hostility between these two sides in the United States comes at the expected time, since the country has already slipped from its peak and is slowly descending on the other side. The historical development of oikophobia has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of our society, on its culture, politics, and military. It is a nation so fixated by internal squabbles that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward, unified force.

That this would happen was predicted hundreds of years ago through the trajectories of previous civilizations—in fact, it was predicted thousands of years ago, before Europeans even knew of the American hemisphere. In Book 8 of his Republic, Plato explains that the more freedom and equality is to be found in a society, the more its members will hold themselves above the state. We do not need to agree with Plato’s grumpy old fascism and proto-communism to understand, nonetheless, the wisdom of his description of societies’ decline. Conservatism and progressivism are both needed, but in different doses at different times. A more progressive outlook is important for an early society that needs to adopt new ideas and absorb the strength of outsiders in an effort to get ahead, while a more conservative outlook is needed in late society in order for it not to lose its grounding and its ability to stand up for itself. The perennial doom of Western societies is that early on, many people tend to be more conservative, and later on, many people tend to be more progressive, the exact opposite of what is needed.

It is a shame that we are in the grip of oikophobia, and it is indicative of how we have let other cultures crowd out our own; it’s a pity because it should be possible to express interest in and to learn from other traditions while at the same time remaining appreciative of one’s own heritage. But many people are incapable of handling that balance, and the more oikophobic we become and the more we embrace the idea of cultural diversity, the farther we are removed from the sources and thereby the understanding of our own culture. Since we do not understand this culture, one often hears oikophobic Westerners refer with disdain to “Western values” or to those who say they treasure “Western values”—but in fact those disdainful people themselves adore Western values; they just don’t know it. That is to say, they do not know that they are Western.

It is because pride in our civilization is entirely justified—which does not negate an awareness of its shortcomings and of past crimes—that we must understand the phenomenon of oikophobia, since by understanding it we can finally hope to combat it. Once we realize that oikophobia is a sort of pathology that develops under distinct socio-historical circumstances and does not involve any particularly interesting independent thought, but rather is more of a knee-jerk reaction, we are better equipped to face it in our everyday lives.

Benedict Beckeld has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Classical Philology from the University of Heidelberg. His latest book, Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations, will be published on May 15, 2022 by Cornell University Press. He has written for Quillette, the Federalist, City Journal, and other outlets. He is based in New York City.