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Masonic Bios

X is for Xenophobia


By Bro. John Hayes

Xenophobia is "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign," according to the Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary, © 2002 Merriam-Webster, Inc.

"Prejudice against women cannot be considered xenophobic in [the] sense [that it 'implies a belief, accurate or not, that the target is in some way foreign']," intones the Wikipedia on xenophobia, "except in the limited case of all-male clubs or institutions." Oooh, would that mean us?

I was doing a bit of research about xenophobia for this article, and ran across this sentence, buried among references to "racism," "foreigners," "genocide" and "mass expulsion," which gives us some idea of the ultimate end of the xenophobe, perhaps. But it also causes me concern, for if Masonry is in some significant senses xenophobic, and if it can also be described using the rest of the words above, how is it a "system of morality"? Or, at the very least, how can we be accused of "making good men better" while at the same time being xenophobic?

Xenophobia is obviously a Greek word (nods and winks towards My Big Fat Greek Wedding as well as several well-known brethren), from xenos meaning foreigner and phobos meaning fear. That much I could do off the top of my head. It's also a word that has not strayed from its roots. It still, in a way, means fear of foreigners.

The phobia element, however, does deserve some discussion. In modern parlance, -phobia is not used merely to describe an item feared. Homophobia is not, frankly, the fear of men. It has been morphed to mean a dislike of or hatred for homosexuals, which is not hinted at in the root of the word. Thus xenophobia works, for we see it everywhere changing fear into hatred.

Where in Masonry will we find a "fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign"? Where, indeed.

We might start anywhere that says of a potential brother that he'd be more comfortable "with his own kind." We might start in the American South, and in other parts of America and elsewhere similarly in denial.

But we can also look at any place that talks about "not doing it that way," for that is simply a fear or loathing of anything that is strange or foreign. If a brother of 30 years has become accustomed to doing "it" one way and one way only, what is his reaction when he says "that's not the way it's done in this lodge" but the reaction of a xenophobe?

And what about places where we can't consider certain ideas or practices because they are too French, too English, too European or too American, all nationalities that inspire active and acute dislike in some areas? This is a simple xenophobic reaction, but it leads to hatred or at the very least dislike. And if found out by the "other side," is quickly requited, believe me.

Anywhere that dismisses ideas or people because they belong to an identifiable group that is not us, that is a place where they have to come to terms with being xenophobic. I'm sure that you can think of similar situations, but I think I have identified three that we can do without in Masonry.

Number 1: Racism

The first is, of course, racism pure and simple. "Not in Masonry?" you exclaim, but we can assure you that it is there and is prevalent in some places.

It's easy to point to Alabama or Texas, so I will avoid doing so. Racism is not limited to the old confederacy, although you'll find it more widespread and openly so there than elsewhere. However, this is not an anecdote set in the South, and it is completely true.

I know a man who moved to Washington, DC, some years ago, and became good friends with an African American man in his workplace. The first man is Caucasian, and is a Mason. His friend became interested in the Craft, and the man brought his name to the attention of the brethren of the lodge with which he had affiliated in the DC area. His suggestion that he had a candidate was at first greeted with enthusiasm - members being the lifeblood of the organization, yadda, yadda. Only when the details came out - that the potential petitioner was an African American - did the tune change. "He'd be more comfortable within the Prince Hall walls," the sponsor was told. "I'm sure he's a good man, but he would have more in common with the brethren there." All on the up-and-up, solely concerning the welfare of the new brother.

But also based on nothing but the colour of his skin. His race. This wouldn't be tolerated in another aspect of the world, such as hiring practices, or eligibility for scholarships, or housing, or something like that. Certainly not in Washington. But it is apparently fine in Masonry.

Can you see someone saying that the kid's a good student, but that he would feel more comfortable at a Black-only university rather than the big one in town, so he ought to attend over there? Can you see someone saying that the family's a nice one, but that they'd feel much more comfortable over in that African-American suburb, and that they really ought not to buy a house in this White-only neighbourhood?

Maybe you can, but that would be in a black and white movie (if you'll pardon the pun), not in 21st century organizational politics.

One of the sad footnotes to all this is that the brother I know had no problem toeing this line. He recommended to his friend that he apply to the Prince Hall Masons, and ignored the underlying racism that made it near impossible for an outsider - defined as such by the colour of his skin - to be admitted into a lodge of Free and Accepted Masons. While the system he was dealing with needs to be changed, he also let down the side.

We have seen xenophobia in action.

Number 2: Fear of change

An officer in my lodge was careful about his ritual, and he read and re-read the book so that he was very familiar with it. He got so solid at it that he could answer questions after only a few years that men who were looking to get their 50-year jewels didn't know, and it influenced his work.

One day at a practice, he did what was literally demanded in the ritual, and didn't stand up when he rapped to open the lodge (he was a warden). At the opening, the Master raps once, followed by the Senior Warden and then the Junior Warden. The book says nothing about standing up until the next line, when everyone except the Master is to stand. So, he did not stand when he rapped, although he'd seen it done that way in our lodge for as long as he could remember.

An older PM was waving him up after he rapped, but he didn't think that it was right to do something not in the ritual, so he continued to sit.

"You have to stand up when you rap," said the PM, in a kindly voice.

"I looked in the ritual, and you're not supposed to stand up until the Master raps up the whole of the lodge," he replied.

"Let me see," said the old PM rather frostily, before rifling through the pages of his ritual. "Well," he said, "I'm sure that it's in here somewhere."

The younger Mason was just as sure that it was not in there, and said so in a polite way. He said that he didn't think that it was the right way to do it, as it was not specified.

The older PM then stood up and thundered, "You're going to do it that way in this lodge. We've always done it that way."

Now I know the old PM was taught that it was the way that it had to be done, when he went through the chairs. And he's taught many others to do the same, so in a way suggesting to him that the younger man would know more about the ritual will be not a comment but a snub in his eyes.

Furthermore, there is nothing wrong in standing up when you rap to open lodge. As I said, the ritual is silent on the subject. One might have made headway with saying "It's a tradition of the lodge, even though it's not in the ritual." But that's not the way it went down.

The old PM had thought that he was following the ritual, and when he found out that he was not, instead of saying so, he barked an order that it would be so. Because "we've always done it that way."

Well, that's a heck of a good reason. One wonders how we ever managed to get electric lights in the lodge rooms.

But this is xenophobia in action, according to our definition above. The idea of not standing up which gave the old PM offence is an example of something that "is strange or foreign." His reaction would indicate that he has a pretty solid "fear and hatred of it."

My comment on this is that xenophobia is everywhere, and is not always something as significant as racism. But hatred and fear are hatred and fear, and as Masons we are enjoined to be thoughtful and open-minded, seeking to understand and seeking to build rather than tear down. If we are unaware of the xenophobia that we can fall prey to, we will find it hard to overcome it and actually live according to the tenets enjoined upon us.

Number 3: Insularity

The word "insular" comes from the Latin insula, or island. We will find that those who live in self-imposed shells whereby everyone from the outside becomes foreign in some serious way, quickly become insular - isolated both physically and intellectually. We find this form of xenophobia prevalent throughout the Craft, and it is a pernicious aspect of Masonry.

"We aren't going to be able to get them to do it that way," one man wrote of a good idea to make his lodge better. "It's too French for the brethren, and when they find out that the idea started in France, they'll reject it." And thus, a lodge is impoverished.

For that is what insularity contributes to the lodge: poverty. Generally the poverty is intellectual, but it can also bring about real monetary poverty. Let's look at this kind of xenophobia and examine where it comes from.

You'll see in most lodges many trappings of patriotism. There are flags for the country and the state or province, or often are. There is a pledge to the flag, sometimes the national anthem is sung. These are usually positive as we celebrate the tenets of loyalty to country. But they can become jingoistic and negative if we do not watch ourselves, as they did with the lodge above, rejecting a good idea just because some of the guys might find out that the French did it first.

What this creates is an ongoing inability to introduce change to a lodge. We see it in our jurisdiction, not in the endless celebrations of how we are uber-patriots that we see in some places, but in a cross-pollination between the two rites practiced here. We have the Canadian and Ancient York or American rites, and we have lodges that work in them and brethren who inter-visit regularly. This brings about some mixing in the rites, as when a lodge is closed in the Canadian Rite but the wording used is from the Ancient York Rite. "Too much of that American influence," you may hear, usually said in a friendly banter. I'm not sure an American hearing it, and there are many Americans here, would think it quite as benign, but perhaps they would.

There's a movement afoot in Masonic circles to return to a more traditional focus for their lodges, and this is called the TO or EC movement. TO stands for "Traditional Observance." EC stands for "European Concept." The use of these words has done as much to damage this movement in the U.S. as anything else. There's a real belief that to adopt anything that might be named "European Concept" would be to reject the "American Way," and that to do so would be unpatriotic. With all the patriotism enjoined upon American Masons in their lodges, this is a problem and it could very well damage the Craft in the U.S. because of some unwillingness to use perfectly legitimate Masonic concepts, concepts that American lodges followed when they were founded 200 years ago. Just because they are now called "European."

And so we can see that xenophobia over something petty can lead to significant damage and limitations to the institution of Freemasonry based on what? A label? A misnomer? An overstressing of the patriotic elements of the Craft and an understressing of the internationalist elements, the "universalism" of the Craft.

But it's not all that easy, just straight lines between xenophobic reactions and issues. As Masons, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard. How many times do we hear that?

And how many times are we told over the trivial and over the significant that we don't need the advice of "outsiders"? "Keep out of our affairs," "you city guys don't understand country lodges," or vice versa, "we don't need any northerners coming in to tell us what to do," etc. And with that, change to dress, race issues, meeting and degree timing, alcohol in lodge halls, raffles, pronunciation of important words, any number of issues, is put off, sidetracked, and the discussion is moved from the issue to one where it's the outsiders telling us how to act.

I've seen many Masons say that "All Masonry is local." While this is sometimes a fine notion, it also lends itself to the worst of our xenophobic impulses.

How do we come to terms with this?

Leadership must speak out strongly against xenophobia whenever it rears its head. Education broadens the mind, and breaks down the kind of thinking pattern that makes everything as it's done in the local valley or up on the local hill the way it ought to be done world-wide.

One online Mason, about three years ago, wondered why the United Grand Lodge of England lodges "don't do it the right way." I forget the actual issue. I suspect it had to do with the rather more formal dress requirements in England, and the misappropriation of the idea that it's not the external but the internal qualities of a man that Masonry values. Nevertheless, for anyone to claim that the UGLE has it wrong and their own local lodge has it right, that the local traditions trump those of the mother Grand Lodge in the world, well, that's as misinformed and xenophobic as we can get. But the key is that it's misinformed. One can argue that the UGLE (or any other lodge) is wrong, but one must make the case. Simply reciting some slogan against 250 years of practice, well, it's just not enough.

Education is the solution to xenophobic thought. Not education in Masonic catechisms, which is not education at all but ritual practice. Education: Politics in foreign countries. Masonry in history. Science through the ages and especially today. Faith differences over time and place. Etc. Etc.

Xenophobia is simply the source of the most blighted areas in the Masonic world. If there is a serious problem not being addressed, you can assuredly blame xenophobia, at least in part. It behooves us to do all we can to eliminate it, today and every day. Here and everywhere.

- Source: Knights of the North Masonic Dictionary

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