Heavy stuff, ethics ;-)

I spoke with my father about Levinas, and he asked me if all this reading about ethics has an effect for how I think about morality with regard to my own life. I said that it clearly has an effect, indeed. I said that I think that humans are always responsible for their actions, so this also applies to myself, others can always ask me why I did what I did and I should be able to give some kind of explanation to them.
My father asked me if that doesn't put a heavy weight on my shoulders, when I feel responsible for all that I have done wrong and if I try to be a moral perfectionist.
But my personal experience is that reading Levinas made my life lighter, not heavier. It is difficult to explain why that is so, but I will try it anyway.

1. The first reason is that ethics didn't come falling out of the sky for me when I started to read Levinas. My consciousness has always been strong, as long as I can remember. As a child it was already like that that I felt guilty a long time if I had done something wrong. So Levinas is certainly not giving me a heavy guilty conscience feeling that would be new for me, my attempts to be a good person have always been strong.

2. The second reason is that I don't demand of myself to be perfect. Everybody makes moral mistakes and so do I. What is important is that I try my best. Every human has the potential ability to hear the moral appeal that the other does to us. If I try my best to open my ears to these appeals and to take my responsibility upon me, the chance that my actions will be good is bigger than when I keep my ears closed and refuse to respond to the appeal of the other.

3. A third and related reason is Levinas' emphasis on forgiveness. I should receive the other with open arms, I shouldn't judge him, I shouldn't create an image of him so that I determine what he is like. I should respect him and treat him as a human. I should show empathy, I should try to help the other when he asks for help. I should be willing to forgive him, that's the only way that we can have a good peaceful and just relation. So the other should forgive me too, and this means that I should be able to forgive myself when I make a mistake, at least if I promise to myself that I will try to do it better the next time.

Forgiveness gives an opening to end conflicts and wars. I just read a very interesting article about forgiveness in Philosophy Magazine, which was about Levinas as well. It started with a consideration of time. For humans it is impossible to experience time - the past, the present and the future - in an objective way. When two people who experienced the same will both tell about that past experience, their stories will probably be different. What they will say about the past is always a story, an interpretation, never a purely objective description.

Now let's imagine that I did something wrong to another. When I tell others about what happened, I will deny that I did something wrong. But as long as I do so, the other will remain angry with me and so we continue to have a conflict. But when I admit that i am wrong and when I say that I am sorry, my own story of the past and the one from the other become the same, and then he can say: "ok, I forgive you". And then we have peace again.

So this emphasis on openness, dialogue and forgiveness makes my life less heavy. Forgiveness is a form of freedom, not of an unlimited totalitarian freedom, but a form of responsible freedom. To forgive is better than to pretend to have forgotten. When you try to forget something you put it away without doing anything with it. When you forgive you repair what was broken, and after that you can make a new start with the other. The pain and the sadness of the past are not put away in a dark corner of your heart, but they are really removed and replaced by happiness.

4. The whole philosophy of Levinas is very positive and confident, although it's a form of confidence which can never lead to arrogance, since anything you would ever claim with certainty can always be put into question by the other. But there are human rights which count for everybody, so also for me. I am unique, I have a right to exist and to be treated as a human. I am good the way I am, I can always be myself. I don't have to worry about negative images that others invent about me, only the real me counts, not these invented images. So in fact my life didn't become heavier because of reading Levinas, on the contrary, it became easier. Levinas offers protection against bitterness, and a positive attitude is very good to overcome dissappointments and to feel strong and happy.

5. I don't know how to make this last remark but I'll say it anyway. I turned my back towards religion when I was about 13 years old because I found it too dogmatic. Now I discovered that Levinas' religious philosophy is not dogmatic, and that his foundation of ethics is very strong because it is founded on a transcendental metaphysical infinite being: God. The God as Levinas imagines him, is a God that I can live with, that I no longer have to turn my back to. And the strange thing is that I can feel his strength again, his goodness and justice, and because I can feel that inside of me it makes me stronger and less uncertain. I don't know if he really exists or not, it is well enough possible that I make up for myself, unconsciously, that I feel his power and that I have the feeling that he supports me. But even if God is just a placebo effect, the effect is still that I feel less uncertain and that I know better what I want and how I can strive for that.



The first necessity of life is justice

Now it's time for an important text of which parts of it will get a central place in my dissertation.

The text below is a summary that I wrote for Orkut, of a newspaper article written by Susan Neiman. People who read some other posts in this blog won't be surprised to see that the theme of this article is justice in relation to religion and ethics... ;-)

Kant was thinking about the question if universal moral laws exist, independent of culture, religion etc. He didn't give a direct answer, but used a parable.Imagine a man who can't resist the temptation to go in, each time he passes by a brothel. He tries to resist the temptation, he knows he shouldn't go there, but he can't help it. Kant says that we can easily understand that he can't resist the temptation. Now what if in front of the door a gallows is put up. Every man who has visited a whore is killed. Now it's not so difficult anymore to resist the temptation to go there. No matter how big his desire for sex is, his desire to stay alive is bigger. Now imagine this man is summoned by a dictator. An innocent citizen will be killed by the dictator, but the dictator first forces the man he summoned to write a false statement that the citizen is guilty. If the man refuses to do so he will be killed himself. In this case it's difficult to predict what the man would do. Maybe he decides that he wants to stay alive at all costs. But there's a kind of moral appeal that he shouldn't be responsible for the death of an innocent person, even if it means that e will die himself.When this man feels this dilemma, when he really thinks about the two options and which choice would be the best, he experiences his freedom. Not a desire for egoist satisfaction but a desire for justice can bring people to deeds which are able to conquer one of the strongest natural desires; the love for life itself. These examples can be understood by everyone, also by business men, women and school youth, according to Kant. What is universal, is not an objective ethical thruth, because that doesn't exist. It is only the ability of human beings to make a distinction between right and wrong, the freedom to choose (and at the same time responsibility for the choices you make). Truth is a matter of what the world is like, ethics is a matter of how the world should be. People all over the world will never agree about how the world should be, but what is universal is that they all think about it. Now what do you say to a sceptic who asks why he would do an deed of altruism? According to Kant you have to talk about heroes. Virtues are worth more when the effort / the costs are high. Heroes exist, people who are willing to give almost everyhting to achieve justice. The examples of Kant show that a moral attitude is possible. It's a thought experiment that everyone can make. The universality of the experiment gives it power. The world view that human beings are only moved by material desires is more and more denied. What people are missing in the material world is not irrational: it is because we want to determine the world instead of that we are determined by the world. One could call this a desire for transcendence. We are born and we die as part of nature but we feel most alive when arise above / out of it. Human dignity is very important. Human life gains meaning when we experience that we can decide not to accept the world as given / unchangeable.
Susan Neiman says that especially a fundamentalist religion fullfils this need. Religion fullfils the human need for the meaning of life. Religion gives us a stable place in the world, it tells a story about our lives which are often short and painful. Secularists often see religion as a way not only to make life easier for the believers, but also to make them passive. But religion doesn't make people only passive. It offers the possibility of transcendence out of the daily life, it's a spiritual stimulance in a world of slowness and indifference. This is the point where religion meets ethics. No matter how often the priests have mobilised their herds with promises about heaven and warnings about the hell, these manipulations are political, so they play only a side role in religion and ethics. In the way in which religion can show / give a meaning to life, it has got strong moral roots. From the outside it seems that religious fundamentalists gave up their own thinking for their belief, but from the inside to believe is itself a choice which means that you reject a life lead by the rules of the consumption society. Religion and ethics are both determined to show that a better world is possible than what we see now.

All three western religions know a fundamentalist authoritarian direction. They say that believing means that you have to stop using your intellect. But it's hard to deny that religion is always a matter of interpretation, which means that the intellect is needed. Authoritarian religions will obedience to God and his replacers on earth. In the end fundamentalists will deny that human reason can decide about issues of truth and justice. But holy books are written in codes that have to be interpreted. Old principles cannot directly be applied to modern times. Much of the wisdom that arose in ancient times came into existence out of a need for moral judgements. Reason is needed to make those judgements. So apart from the fundamentalist views there are also rationalist religious views in our western traditions. In those views our ability to reason is not considered to be a threat to the obedience to God. If human reason is a gift of God, it should also be used. We didn't get our ability to give a meaning to life for nothing. So we should stop dividing the world along secular and religious lines, with secularism representng reason and religion representing faith. If you believe in the existence of God or not is less important than your ideas about what your belief means to you. Is your belief telling you what to do or does your belief ask you to think yourself? Every religion has signs that point to both directions. In the Old Testament both directions are clearly present. When God demanded Abraham to sacrifice his own son, the meaning is clearly that God's orders should be followed unconditionally, also if the sacrifice is incredibly big and also if Abraham doesn't understand why he should do that. But Neiman also gives other less known examples with a different message. Before Abraham goes to the mountain Moira, he travels to Sodom and Gomorra. There God shows him the plan to destroy both cities. Then Abraham asks him: what if among the sinners in Sodom there are 50 innocent people?
He who is the judge of the earth cannot be so injust as to kill 50 innocent people. God agrees, if there are 50 innocent people in the city, he will give the city forgiveness. But what if there are less innocent people, asks Abraham, what if there are 45? The answer is clear, in that case the city would be saved also. When Abraham convinced God that 10 innocent people is already enough to save the city, he stops the negotiations. This is a very strong example to show that according to rationalists, God stimulates that human beings use their ability for reason and ethics. Abraham is concerned about the innocent people in Sodom, although he is not related to them, it is not in his own interest that he support towards God. And he is determined to fight for justice, he goes on until the end, although he knows that God can destroy him with one glance. Why does he do that? It would be much more safe to keep his mouth shut, God could easily become angry, why does he care about the people in Sodom? But he's not afraid and he stands up against God firmly. Neither his fear, neither his reason prevents him from doing so. In this example God cares more about that people follow their conscience than that they use the right rituals. God prefers to have a good discussion above proving that he's right.



The missing face of the other in the online world

What would Levinas think of virtual worlds like Orkut and msn? When he died in 1995 these virtual worlds were clearly not that far developed yet, and Levinas was from an old mostly non-digital generation then. I spoke about this with my father and he said I should write about it in my dissertation. But first I will write about it here to start with.

So how's the "meeting with the other", is it different in an online world than the offline world? Levinas always speaks about being "face to face with the other". In the virtual world I don't see the face of the other so directly in front of me. We can use webcams, but still I only see an image of the face of the other, not a "naked" face which is physically present in front of me. What is the effect of the absence of the face of the other? I think that the risk of totalisation / objectification of the other, of killing the other as a human, becomes bigger. It happens a lot at Orkut, that people call each other trolls or morons and that they tell each other to go to hell. It's easy to write posts full of hate and personal attacks, to say these things in front of somebody's face is much more risky, because there's a big chance of being beaten down. You type something and you send it, and then you will see what kind of reaction you will get, the interaction is less directly. Some Orkuters have animals or cartoon figures instead of their own faces as pictures in their profiles, and anonymous names. So it can happen easily that you forget that they are human in fact. And once the atmosphere became one of fighting it is hard to stop it, once people dehumanized each other, it's hard to undo it.

It's also that Orkut is a truly multicultural society, so many cultures mixed in communities you won't find in any country. Americans form a minority in the American Politics community, the whole world discusses their politics with them. Orkut is a real global village and if you don't like that you shouldn't move around there, the fundamental cultural pluriformity cannot be avoided. But it is strange that the virtual world is not physical, it's not based in a particular country. If I would travel to the Middle-East I would carry decent clothes with me which are not too reveiling. But in the virtual world I think that I should be able to travel around in the same way as I behave in the Netherlands, otherwise I don't know to which culture I should adapt my behaviour, that would be strange in the online world. But still my behaviour can be as shocking for people with other cultural backgrounds as when I would behave like that in their country. If there is one place where intercultural compentences are needed, like respect and openness to other cultures, patience, empathy, to listen well to what others say, then it's in the online Orkut world. But people often don't realise that.

But there are also positive aspects of these virtual worlds. For me personally, for instance, an advantage is that I am not shy in an online world. I don't know what it is that makes that I can write much better than speak, words just don't want to go out of my mouth, probably it's exactly the power of the face of the other in front me that makes it more difficult for me to express my thouhgts. MSN is like telephatics for me. I think something and I send it through MSN, and I receive the thoughts of my friend in reply. Research has shown that teenagers are often seriously bullied by their class mates in MSN (you wonder then why the victims don't block the bulliers in MSN). So that's the same effect as in Orkut, that you can easily insult people because they can't hurt you physically and you don't see their face that requests of you that you stop the violence. But because it is more easy for me to tell others what I think in MSN, it's also more easy to give the other compliments and to say that the friendship is really important for me. Personally I like it very much that I find it much easier to express philosophical ideas. In the offline world it's very rarely that I succeed in that, only with really good listeners. When I can reread what I wrote before and when it's no problem when there are long silences, I can explain to others much better what I mean than when I talk to them.

And despite the fact that there are many inctercultural fights, I think that the strong interaction between different cultures in the online world could in the long run lead to that Orkuters know more about each others cultures and that they somehow start to respect people with other cultures and religions more. As I said before, the communities have a great internal cultural diversity. Cultural groups don't live next to each other without meeting each other, as it is often the case in multicultural societies. New friendships arise between people at opposite sides of the world. The fact that there are so many intercultural dialogues taking place at Orkut and in MSN, means at least that intercultural skills are practiced all the time and that Orkuters will probably and hopefully learn from the mistakes they make.

So despite that Levinas would probably think that it's a matter of making ends meet in Orkut - that the situation to create ethical relations isn't optimal, because the face of the other is absent, I still think that in the effects of intercultural communication in virtual surroundings could be positive with regard to taking away prejudices and decreasing simplistic generalisations, discrimination, xenofobia and finally racism.



Strangers and strange books

I just finished reading "Vreemd gaan en vreemd blijven" from Rudi Visker - which can be translated either as "Committing adultry and sticking to that" or as "Going strange and remaining strange" (or: "Going native"). You can choose yourself which translation is most accurate ;-)

It's not only the title of this book which is strange. When reading this book, I strongly got the feeling that this man has written a book about Levinas while he understands nothing at all of his philosophy. He criticizes Levinas by saying that he should stop putting the mouths of the poor children in the street full of rice. He says that Levinas prefers to "help" all these poor orphans because if he puts food in their mouths he doesn't have to listen to what they say, they can't speak when they eat, and that's the reason why Levinas wants to put food in their mouths.
And this, while on almost every page of "Totality and Infinity" Levinas talks about language, about how there can be a real contact between the one and the other only because they speak to each other. This is how the other does an appeal to me, by speaking to me. I should never stop him from talking to me, because that means that I kill him, in a symbolic way. Why does Levinas give food to poor children? Not because it keeps their mouths busy, but because they ask him for food because they are hungry. That shouldn't be too hard to understand for Rudi Visker...

And then Rudi Visker speaks about racism. He says that according to Levinas an individual cannot be reduced to his race or culture. He doesn't represent a bigger group with a common culture, he only represents himself. He is not depending on his culture, he is an independent human being.
This is correct, but then Visker starts to say that a cultural identity is completely irrelevant according to Levinas. It doesn't matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, man or woman, you are just human and that's all. Then Visker says that maybe the other person won't like it to be treated as an abstract being, that he wants to be seen as black, gay, a communist, or whatever.
But this is a complete misunderstanding of what Levinas means. What he means is that it's not possible to hide behind your culture, nation or whatever. You cannot say: we all behave like this, this is normal for my culture. You should still be able to justify your behaviour as an individual, you can't hide behind your culture. You are not determined by your culture, you are independent of your culture, you can temporary take a distance from it (but not permanently!). But Levinas has never said that cultural identities are irrelevant. On the contrary, for subjects they are very important. And to say that I should be in contact with the other as an "abstract being" is completely ridiculous. The central focus of Levinas is constantly on concrete situations, not at all at abstract ideas. The other person, the other human, can never be abstract. I should throw away all the abstract images that I invented about him and I should only look for and listen to the real person who is standing in front of me.

I should ask him: Who are you? And then the other person might say: "I am a black homosexual communist." Then I say: "Ok, thank you for telling me who you are and nice to meet you." (Or I can first ask some more questions about how he thinks about politics and so.)
A cultural identity isn't irrelevant at the subjective level at all, it is very important. And it doesn't matter if this person is really a communist or not. It's possible that he is telling me lies. But he is the most direct source towards his own subjectivity / identity. When any other person talks about him, it's less directly. For instance, he knows that he is gay, but maybe many other people don't know that.

When I talk with the other, when I listen carefully to what he explains about himself, I can imagine a little bit how he looks at the world. So that is what I should do: talk to him in an open and respectful way and to listen well to what he says. No way that I will put rice in his mouth to make it impossible for him to talk to me.

This picture was the first one I found when I typed "fake harmony" in Google...

And finally another sign of Viskers lack of understanding towards Levinas' philosophy is the way Visker interprets Levinas as if his first aim is to strive for harmony. This is not true. If you immediately strive for harmony, so you force the first person and the other to be kind to each other, then you jump to a stage in the ethical relation which is too high to begin with. What first happens when one person meets the other, is a shocking confrontation. This confrontation, this collision of ego's, is necessary to break open /open up the totalitarian and selfish world of the first person. If your aim from the beginning is to achieve harmony, nobody will ever recognize the existing problems that have to be solved before there can be peace / harmony.

To strive for fake harmony while denying the real obstacles, has a high potential risk of leading to totalitarian thinking and behaviour. When I say: "between the other and me, our relation is harmonious, it has been like that from the beginning", then I deny that a confrontation / meeting has taken place between the other and me in which I was confronted as the same with the totally other. A shocking experience that I had to find a way in of how I should deal with that, the shock makes that I am ashamed of my selfishness and that I start to notice and care for the other.

So harmony is fine as a final result, after people spoke with each other for a long time and got some kind of understanding of each other and found a way to have a real and respectful contact. But not before all the talking has taken place, and only when the harmony arises in a natural way, not with force.

This song from The Ark explains well what the problem is of fake and totalitarian harmony:
You’ve been watching over me
Saying you’re keeping me company
I should be grateful, I suppose
And compare you to a summer’s rose
You’ve been talking sweet to me
About peace and loving harmony
But I know what you say about me
So now I tell you cause I gotta break free
That I can’t give you no false affection
I can do without your phony charm
This train ain’t movin in your direction
This piece of poetry is meant to do harm

Please don’t give me no warm reception
What you call peace to me’s a call to arms
Some are singing to raise affection
But this piece of poetry is meant to do harm

So with what shall I compare thee?
Summer’s clay or winter’s sleet?
You made a non-believer out of me,
Now you ask for my sympathy?
No, take your words and take your vows
Take your flake-fuelled buddhist bows
Let the cool winds roughly shake
Out all darling buds of fake



En de duisternis heeft het licht niet overmeesterd

Ik wilde altijd nog graag een keer een blog post wijden aan Huub Oosterhuis. De muziek van Huub Oosterhuis is voor mij sterk verbonden aan mijn jeugd, mijn 'roots', aan mijn kerk van vroeger: de Kritische Gemeente IJmond. En na er 15 jaar of langer niet naar geluisterd te hebben, heb ik zijn teksten kort geleden herontdekt. En dat hangt natuurlijk samen met het Joods-religieuze denken van Levinas. "Delf mijn gezicht op" is bijvoorbeeld een sterk Levinasiaanse tekst, wat direct al blijkt uit het feit dat het over het gezicht/het gelaat gaat, een thema waar Levinas ook steeds over schrijft. "Wie wordt ontmaskerd, wordt gevonden." Maskers daar hebben we niets aan, die vormen alleen een obstakel voor echt contact tussen de één en de ander, doe maar weg dat masker, zodat de ander jouw echte zelf - niet jouw voorstelling - kan vinden.

Mensen hebben allemaal een persoonlijk verlangen, een passie, hoewel niet iedereen dat even sterk voelt of bewust onder woorden kan brengen. Mijn passie gaat uit naar rechtvaarigheid. Ik stel mij dat voor alsof mijn hart armpjes heeft, en die armpjes strekken zich uit, steeds naar dezelfde kant (het maakt niet uit hoe vaak ik ze een andere kant op probeer te buigen, steeds gaan ze weer terug naar die ene kant). Het streven naar rechtvaardigheid, naar het helpen van arme mensen en anderen die het moeilijk hebben, dat is waar mijn hartarmpjes mijn leven lang al naar verlangen, het is een niet te stoppen neiging, en mijn hart kan alleen gelukkig zijn als ik op de één of andere manier een invulling kan geven aan mijn verlangen naar dat streven naar rechtvaardigheid. Dat klinkt misschien vreemd, een verlangen naar een streven. Toch is dat waar het om gaat. Ik ben niet pas gelukkig als ik de hele of de halve wereld verbeterd heb, ik ben gelukkig als mijn streven naar rechtvaardigheid een centrale plaats in mijn leven heeft, als ik mij op een nuttige manier kan inzetten voor rechtvaardigheid, ongeacht hoe klein het resultaat is van mijn inzet - in feite een druppel op de gloeiende plaat van het onrecht in de wereld. Maar dat maakt dus niet uit voor mij.

Dat is de hoofdreden waarom de teksten van Huub Oosterhuis mij zo aanspreken, omdat rechtvaardigheid één van zijn meest centrale thema's is. Zie bijvoorbeeld de tekst van het "Lied tegen de nieuwe armoede", over onrecht zoals hongersnoden en racisme. En het onrecht is sterk in de wereld, er is "geen God die nog hoger scoort" op dit moment. Maar het onrecht heeft nog niet het laatste woord - gelukkig - en die gedachte geeft de strevers naar rechtvaardigheid kracht. Dat het onrecht niet gewonnen heeft, "dat staat met licht geschreven in de geesten, van mensen niet van beesten". Dus laten we mensen daarop aanspreken, op wat met licht in hen geschreven staat, op hun geweten.

De strijd tussen licht en duister, goed en kwaad, komt ook steeds terug in de teksten van Oosterhuis, "het licht schijnt in de duisternis, en de duisternis heeft het licht niet overmeesterd". En ook: "gij die het licht in ons geschapen heeft, dat niet de duisternis ons overmeesterd" (uit: "Gij die de stomgeslagen mond verstaat"). Dat geeft me hoop, dat de duisternis nog niet gewonnen heeft en ook nooit al het licht in de wereld zal kunnen uitdoven, hopelijk (dat is waarin wij geloven).

En ook:
Licht overdek mij, vuur mij aan.
Dat ik niet uitval, dat wij allen
zo zwaar en droevig als wij zijn,
niet uit elkaars genade vallen
en doelloos en onvindbaar zijn.

Licht, kijk uit mijn ogen of
ergens al de wereld daagt
waar mensen waardig leven mogen
en elk zijn naam in vrede draagt.

Anja Meulenbelt schrijft ongeveer hetzelfde, waarschijnlijk omdat zij ook een hart heeft dat haar armpjes uitstrekt naar rechtvaardigheid :-). Zij zegt op haar website:

Er was iets waar ik niet zo veel woorden voor had. Vooral geen grote woorden. Als grap zei ik wel eens dat ik nu eenmaal een onverbeterlijke wereldverbeteraar was, en dat dat er waarschijnlijk nooit meer uit zou gaan. Ik ben psycholoog genoeg om te weten dat we de dieperliggende motieven voor ons handelen vaak onbewust in onze jeugd opdoen, er zijn ook meisjes die alles goed moeten maken. En toch was er meer dan dat. Een drang waarvoor ik geen woord had, alsof ik werd gestuurd, geduwd, door een aanhoudende ongeduldige hand in mijn rug, een vinger voor mij uit, dáárheen. Tegenstribbelen hielp niet, dus deed ik maar gewoon wat ik dacht dat ik moest doen. Roeping, zou je dat dan kunnen noemen, als dat niet zo'n besmet woord was, zo vaak misbruikt. Iets in de buurt van zending en missie was het. Maar dan liefst zonder het aanhangende kolonialisme en zonder pretentie om anderen een superieur geachte godsdienst op te dringen, dat al helemaal niet. . "Ander, ouder, iemand in ons verborgen. Plotseling oplaaiend vuur van visioenen". Ik herken het in veel van de mensen met wie ik werk, die doen wat ze moeten doen. Die gedreven worden, een missie hebben. Niet ophouden in hun streven naar een betere wereld, al lijkt het tegen beter weten in. Die vaak wars zijn van grote woorden, en zelden in staat om te benoemen waarom ze het doen. Sommige noemen zich gelovig, geloven in iets, in God, of voorbij een god, anderen zeggen van niet.

En een laatste thema van Huub Oosterhuis waar ik het over wilde hebben, is dat God mij volgens Huub Oosterhuis nooit dwingt, maar alleen wenkt. Dat is mooi, dat niet dogmatische, niet totalitaire, wat Levinas ook steeds benadrukt.

Die om mij smeekt,
die ik heb afgeweerd zolang ik kon.
Die mij niet sleurde niet duwde, maar wenkte over uw drempel.
Die de sluier van mijn angst niet scheurde, maar optilde.
Die met enkel uw stem mij zo vermurwde, dat ik wilde.
Ooit door geruchten over u geknecht.
Nu zonder angsten eindelijk verwacht ik u.

Ik wou dat ik dat net zo kon, dat ik niet eigenwijs, dwingend en normatief / belerend tegen de ander zeg wat ik vind dat hij moet doen, maar dat ik hem alleen maar wenk en verwelkom, dat ik hem iets laat zien waarvan hij zelf mag bepalen wat hij daarmee doet.

Wat God voor ons kan doen is niet onze problemen voor ons oplossen. Het enige wat hij voor ons kan doen is ons kracht geven zodat wij dat zelf kunnen doen. Hij kan ons bevrijden uit de opgeslotenheid in ons beperkte en egoïstische zelf, zodat we verder kunnen kijken en meer kunnen doen, verder kunnen komen. Die bevrijding vindt plaats door en dankzij de ander, doordat ik het gelaat van de ander zie die een beroep op mij doet.

De kracht van de bevrijding van God is groot:

Wees hier aanwezig, woord ons gegeven.
Dat ik U horen mag met hart en ziel.
Toekomst van vrede, wees hier aanwezig.
Zie ons gedoog ons, laat ons niet vallen.
Dat wij niet leven, gevangen in leegte.
Dat wij niet vallen terug in het stof.
Dat wij U horen, dat wij U leven,
mensen voor mensen, alles voor allen.
Dat wij volbrengen Uw woord, onze vrede.
Wek Uw kracht en kom ons bevrijden.

Ik ben hem opnieuw gaan horen, God, ik ben opnieuw naar hem gaan luisteren, geïnspireerd door Levinas. Bestaat God? Ik geloof niet in God als een oude man met een lange baard die op een wolk zit en dat hij af en toe met zijn goddelijke toverstaf zwaait waardoor vissen en brood opeens meer worden en Jezus over water kon lopen. De oneindigheid waar ik een glimp van kan zien doordat ik de ander verwelkom, die oneindigheid noemt Levinas God. Oneindigheid bestaat, ja toch? Waarschijnlijk wel. Of het ook oneindige goedheid is en of oneindigheid metaphysisch, dat is moeilijk te zeggen, maar er is geen reden waarom ik er niet in zou kunnen geloven.

We kunnen het eigenlijk niet weten, of God wel of niet bestaat. We kunnen alleen geloven in waar we zelf voor kiezen, wat goed voelt. De eerste helft van mijn leven tot nu toe geloofde ik in God, de tweede helft niet. Laat ik nu, in een nieuwe vorm, kijken hoe het bevalt om wat God betreft terug te keren tot de eerste helft van mijn leven tot nu toe. Dit kan ik doen omdat deze nieuwe vorm niet dogmatisch is. En Levinas' filosofie wordt direct veel minder sterk wanneer je God eruit wegdenkt, dus laat ik hem maar op de koop toenemen...

En nu eindig ik met een liedje van Oosterhuis dat ik zong met het Uitgeester Katholieke Jeugdkoor, toen ik een jaar of 8 was, en waarvan ik de tekst altijd onthouden heb (zonder te weten dat het een liedje van Huub Oosterhuis was):

Hier is een stad gebouwd overal om ons heen,
huizen en bomen en mensen van licht en steen.
Huizen van vrede voor mensen van vlees en bloed.
Veilig onveilig, zo leven zij bitterzoet".

Iedereen wil wel een ander maar weet niet hoe
Iedereen gaat zo zijn weg wie weet waarnaar toe
Mensen gaan twee aan twee, overvloed en woestijn
Zoeken een woning en willen gelukkig zijn

Leven is overal, tussen fabriek en flat
Bloemen en kinderspel, licht op muziek gezet
Is er een stad zonder dood zonder duisternis?
Komt er een stad waar de zon niet meer nodig is?



Language - we hide whole lives between our forked tongues

As I said before, language plays an important role in Levinas' philosophy. Today I read a very illustrative example of how different languages refer to different "worlds", different parts of reality.

In the Africa special of the National Geographic I read an article about the city life in Nairobi, Kenia, about the life of Mash:

Mash was in his late 20s. His father had been a wealthy man. He was, to Mash, a man "living in English", who believed in education and "fair play". A man who invested a lot of time telling his children to look forward, to the West, to progress. Then he died, and at his funeral another wife and three children appeared, as if from nowhere. Mash's father had managed to hide a family for 20 years.

How could he manage to do that? Nairobi people have learned to have dual personalities. We move from one language to another, from one identity to another, navigating different worlds, some of which never meet.

Mash would go to work in the morning for a tour company, where he spoke good private school English. In the evening we would cross to Biasharra Street in Mlango Kubwa to drink and talk. We would speak in English about philosophy or literature or the formal job market. We would speak in Kiswahili about life in general, about the little things that made up our day. We sought a kind of brotherhood from our conversations in Kiswahili - speaking always in a mock-ironic tone, laughing a lot, being generous about each other's opionions, offering each other drinks and favors in ways we could not in English.

We hide whole lives in the gaps between these forked tongues. This is how Mash's father managed to hide his second family, his village family, for so long. He was somebody else, somewhere else, in another language. His story is not unusual."

Why is it impossible to have the cosey evening chats in English? It is not because their knowledge of English would not be suffiently, they speak perfect private school English at work, they could easily continue in an informal way at night. No, it's because that language doesn't match with the setting, with that part of reality.The effects are really far-going, the mocking-irony way of talking isn't possible in English, in English they don't accept opposing opinions so easily, and in English they wouldn't be so fast to offer each other a drink.

And the father of Mash could live a secret life next to his public life by speaking in different languages. If he lives in two separate worlds, in every world a different language, he can pretend to be two persons. When it really feels like that, he will never confuse these worlds by accident and e.g. talk about his second wife to his first wife.

My personal experience with language is the same, i.e that certain languages are for me related to specific settings.
For instance I have a friend from Senegal who has been living in the Netherlands for more than 10 years. He speaks Dutch well enough, we could speak Dutch with each other. But we prefer to continue talking in English (or sometimes French), in the same way as we started that at the beginning of the friendship 6 years ago.
We don't like the Dutch language setting, it doesn't fit. We like a Senegalese setting (created when speaking in French with some small words in Wolof), or the setting of world citizens, with English as the international communication language.



Tolerance and forgiveness

My friend from Pakistan, from "More protection against bitterness" posted another text from the "Bowl of Saki", and again it's a very beautiful text which is very relevant for the theme of my dissertation. This time the topic is "tolerance and forgiveness". The article states that "in order to learn forgiveness man must learn tolerance first". I will first write about tolerance and then about forgiveness. This post ends with the original text of the Bowl of Saki.

So what does it mean, the word tolerance? The Cambridge online dictionary gives two different meanings:
This second meaning is very important, but the way the word is used is most often with the first meaning. When I say: "We should not tolerate that our society becomes a chaos without any rules or authority", then tolerate means almost the same as "condone", which means to accept or allow behaviour which is wrong.This is not what I mean when I talk about tolerance, that we should allow all kinds of bad behaviour, that when we see that somebody in the street beats down a child, that we stand there watching and "being tolerant". The "ability to bear" is something entirely different. We are all different, not only natives and immigrants are different, the society consists of barbers, poets, mothers, gothic music lovers, homeless, bungy jumpers, refugees, etc. We are all different but we are all humans, we also have a lot in common. We live next to each other, all mixed up. We sometimes bother each other. The things that I do affect others and sometimes they don't like that. We will have to accept that this is the case, we need an ability to bear the weight that we have to carry because we all live together.We have to be a bit flexible, we have to accept that we are sometimes annoyed by the presence of others. And we have to put limits to the behaviour towards others, when others get hurt by certain behaviour it cannot be allowed. Tolerance, to bear annoyance, means also that I accept that my individual freedom ends where it starts to harm others, then I have to bear the annoyance that I cannot do everything I would like to do (see also my blog post about "verdraagzaamheid".

And now, let's imagine that we learned how to be tolerant. Now why would we have to learn how to forgive? It's because forgiveness is the cure against hate / bitterness. According to Levinas there is a constant movement between peace and war. The two are strongly related. Peace is a temporary state of quietness which can be disturbed by the fights of war anytime. On the other hand it is because war exists that humans can make peace, by ending a war. There is totality on the one hand and infinity on the other hand. Totality is selfish, I want to possess the whole world, even other humans, I want to controll everything, I want to be powerful, almighty. I treat other humans as if they are objects. With objects I can do what I like, I can break them if I am strong enough, they can't resist (if they are made of weak material), they can't talk to me and tell me to stop it. I don't have to respect an object, I can do with it whatever I like, as long as the owner of the object doesn't become mad at me and tries to stop me. This is totality / totalitarianism / egoism. It means that I kill the other, either literally, or in a symbolic way, that I dehumanize him, that I treat him as an object.

At the other side of the spectrum there is Infinity. God is Infinity, He is infinitely good and almighty. The other can open up my selfish world , my immoral totality. When I see his face in front of me, when he does a moral appeal to me, I feel ashamed that I am so selfish. Because he opens up my own little world, my prison, I can see that there is more, I can see a glimpse of Infinity, of God. I can feel that the other person does an appeal to me, and that he does so in the name of God. This means that a strong moral appeal is coming to me from the outside, from a person who is totally different from me. I realise that this person is a human being, not an object, I cannot reduce him to an object in my totalitarian world, because he resists my totalisation. Because the way the other speaks to me, because I see his face, I can see a glimpse of Infinity, and I feel an urge to take my responibility upon me and to respond to the other in a morally just way. I start to listen to what that person says, I respect him as a human, I tolerate him with all my heart, I accept him completely the way he is, I forgive him for whatever he has done to me.

So let's imagine there's a war going on. Two persons hate each other, they are fighting with the aim to destroy each other. It's a long time ago since they regarded each other as humans, now the one person sees the other person as an enormous monster, a devil which is completely evil (and also the other way around). The only way to end this evil is to kill it, since it is clear that it doesn't make sense to negotiate with the devil to reach an agreement, and it is even more stupid to ask the devil to become a good person or to forgive him for what he has done. So in this totalitarian world there is no place for forgiveness or tolerance. This is a completely immoral world where people only kill and destroy.

In fact this situation of war is bad for both persons. Even if one person succeeds in killing / destroying the other person, in the end, so that he can be happy that he won the fight, then still he has wasted a lot of energy only on destruction, nothing constructive / positive. And for sure he will have got injured himself also during the fight. If both people could decide together that they want to stop the painful destructive fight, it would be much better for both of them. How can they achieve that, that the fight ends? It doesn't work if only one person stops. Then he becomes an easy target for the other one to kill him with one strike.

Somehow I have to convince the other person that I want to stop fighting, but only if he stops too. I have to make him think about what we are doing, that he realises that the destruction is useless. The atmosphere of hate and destruction should be judged as bad and replaced by a more friendly positive atmosphere. An atmosphere in which forgiveness is possible, from both sides. Once that is really possible, there is no need to fight anymore.

So what should happen is that I say to the other: "Wait a minute, can you stop fighting, just for one minute? Look what we are doing here, this destruction leads to nothing. I am willing to stop this fight, do you want that too? I am willing to forgive you for all the harm you did to me, if you promise me that you want to stop hurting me."

So this is why we have to learn to forgive...

Now here is another part of the "Bowl of Saki" text about tolerance and forgiveness:

To become cold with the coldness of the world is weakness, and to become broken by the hardness of the world is feebleness, but to live in the world and yet to keep above the world is like walking on water. Tolerance is the sign of an evolved soul, for a soul shows the proof of its evolution in the degree of the tolerance it shows. The life in the lower creation shows the lack of
tolerance. As one evolves spiritually, a person seems to rise above this natural tendency of intolerance, for the reason that he begins to see, besides himself and the second person, God; and he unites himself with the other person in God. But when a soul has evolved still more, tolerance becomes the natural thing for him. Because the highly evolved soul then begins to realize that "Another person is not separate from me, but the other person is myself. The separation is on the surface of life, but in the depth of life I and the other person are one."

Tolerance is the first lesson of morals, and the next is forgiveness. A person who tolerates another only out of fear, through pride, from a sense of honor, or by the force of circumstances does not know real tolerance. Tolerance is a consideration by which one overlooks the fault of
another and gives no way in oneself to the impulse of resistance. It is in our own power to choose the view of imperfection (looking only at mistakes without offering forgiveness) or the vision of perfection (to choose for respect and forgiveness), and the difference is only looking down or looking upwards. By a slight change of attitude in one's outlook on life one can make the world into either hell or heaven. The more one tolerates, the stronger one becomes in this way. It is the tolerant who is thoughtful. And as thought becomes greater, one becomes more tolerant.
The words of Christ: Resist not evil, teach tolerance.

When a person begins to see all goodness as being the goodness of God, all the beauty that surrounds him as the divine beauty, he begins by worshipping a visible God, and as his heart constantly loves and admires the divine beauty in all that he sees, he begins to see in all that is visible one single vision; all becomes for him the vision of the beauty of God. His love of beauty increases his capacity to such a degree that great virtues such as tolerance and forgiveness spring naturally from his heart. Even things that people mostly look upon with contempt, he views with tolerance.

In order to learn forgiveness man must learn tolerance first. And there are people whom man cannot forgive. It is not that he must not forgive, but it is difficult, beyond his power to forgive, and in that case the first thing he can do is to forget. The first step towards forgiveness is to forget. They say, 'Forgive and forget', which is very expressive of the process of forgiveness. It
is impossible to forgive unless you can forget. What keeps man from forgiving his fellow man is that he holds the fault of another constantly before his view. It is just like sticking a little thorn in one's own heart and keeping it there and suffering the pain. It may also be pictured as putting a drop of poison in one's own heart and retaining it until the whole heart becomes poisoned. Verily, blessed are the innocent, who do not notice anybody's fault, and the greater credit is to the mature souls, who, recognizing a fault, forget it and so forgive. How true are the words of Christ, 'Let those throw a stone who have not sinned.' The limitations of human life make man subject to faults. Some have more faults, some have less, but there is no soul without faults. As Christ says, 'Call me not good.'Forgiveness is a stream of love, which washes away all
impurities wherever it flows. By keeping this spring of love, which is in the heart of man, running, man is able to forgive, however great the fault of his fellow man may seem. One who cannot forgive closes his heart. The sign of spirituality is that there is nothing you cannot forgive, there is no fault you cannot forget. Do not think that he who has committed a fault yesterday must do
the same today, for life is constantly teaching and it is possible in one moment a sinner may turn into a saint.



Rap around the World

Gisteren stuitte Hidde al zappend op een MTV uitzending waarin Ali B met zijn "Rap around the world" campagne Senegal bezoekt.

Van de MTV website:

Ali B brengt in Rap Around The World het leven van kinderen in moeilijke omstandigheden wereldwijd op geheel eigen wijze in beeld.
Rappen met Senegalese straatjongeren in het stadion van Senegal. Luisteren naar verhalen van aidswezen in Malawi of spreken met de slachtoffers van de tsunami ‘als de camera’s zijn verdwenen’. Het is een greep uit de ontmoetingen die de Nederlandse rapper Ali B. tijdens de onderwijscampagne ‘Rap Around The World’ heeft met kinderen en jongeren in ontwikkelingslanden die onder extreem moeilijke omstandigheden leven.

In Senegal, ontmoet Ali B met gastrapper Bolle Tim en producer Presto de talibes; jongens die door hun ouders naar de koranschool zijn gestuurd. Ze leren er de Koran en het Arabisch. In ruil daarvoor werken ze en bedelen ze voor de koranleraar maar vaak worden ze uitgebuit.
Ze ontmoeten ook het achtjarige jongetje Moussa die is weggelopen van de school omdat hij er mishandeld werd. Maar van zijn vader moet hij terug. Ali B, zelf een moslim, vindt het onbegrijpelijk en is hierdoor zwaar aangeslagen. Je gaat een jochie die mishandeld wordt op school toch niet terugsturen? Ook zien we Ali freestylen met Senegalese rappers, hiphop is overal in Afrika. Didier Awadi, de bekendste rapper van Senegal en tevens ambassadeur van de Plan, krijgt een belangrijke rol in de rap van Ali B en Bolle Tim over de talibes.

Erg goed dat Ali B dit doet, wat ben ik blij dat we dit toevallig gezien hebben. Ali B had terechte kritiek op de slechte Marabouts (koranleraar / medicijnman), degenen die de bedelende kinderen uitbuiten en het geld dat zij binnenhalen niet aan het onderwijs besteden maar voor zichzelf houden. In de film was te zien dat dit fenomeen ook door Senegalezen zelf werd afgekeurd, een vrouw zei dat de ouders goed moeten opletten dat als zij hun kinderen naar een Marabout zenden, ze moeten opletten dat het een goede betrouwbare is.

De film was precies zoals onze eigen Communicado Senegal film zou moeten zijn (en ook wel ongeveer is): aan de ene kant vlot, speels spontaan, met liefde voor Senegal, met opzwepende muziek, aan de andere kant inhoudelijk sterk, genuanceerd en diepgaand. Bijzonder ook dat een Marokkaanse jongen op deze manier zijn verbondenheid met Afrika laat zien, hij rapte met de Senegalezen als Afrikaan, niet als afstandelijke Europeaan.

En nu nog zorgen dat ik hem voor onze film kan strikken, dan maken we een tweede deel waarin Youssou N'Dour en Ali B samen een nummer maken, opgenomen tijdens de feestelijke opening van ons cybercafé in Dioffior. Ik zie het helemaal voor me :-)



Hand in hand

Today I read a newspaper article / essay written by the Dutch Minister for Development Aid, Agnes van Ardenne. The things she says are the same as what I had already been thinking about myself already for a long time. She says that good effective development aid is impossible without paying attention to religion. In the Netherlands religion is often only associated with negative issues like terrorism and wars, but in the mean time many people in the world are inspired by their faith everyday to do good works. Not only with regard to development aid, but also in general, religion is a big taboo topic in the Netherlands (more than e.g. sex, in fact ;-)). You don't speak about religion, you do as if it doesn't exist, it is something completely personal and completely irrelevant when you investigate social problems in societies. Not only should the state and the church be completely separated, the whole public domain is considered to be secular, so religion should be kept out of it. This exceptional Dutch way of thinking is very strange e.g. for Africans, for instance in Senegal, where no more than 2 percent of the population will consist of real atheists, if they exist there at all. It's ridiculous to offer delevopment aid there without paying attention to religion as a phenonomenon with such a central crucial function in the society.

The Minister says that it's a pity that in the present Dutch ideological climate religion is more often seen as part of the problem than as part of the solution. This doesn't only lead to polarisation in the Netherlands but also that people fail to see chances with regard to development aid. More than half of the education and healthcare in Africa is financed by religious organisations, where the state doesn't help, the hole is filled up by local religious organisations. These organisations are able - often better than the state - to mobilise society in a positive way.

Needless to say that many people in underdeveloped countries feel more related to the religious organisations that help them than to the state which often doesn't seem to care. Violent fundamentalistic organisations can misuse this principle to promote their perverse views towards religion and to recruit 'soldiers'. "Nevertheless, I am convinced" - says Van Ardenne - "that the biggest majority of religious organisations acts out of goodness, out of motives of charity, helping the poor". The Dutch organisations for development aid should cooperate with these good religious organisation. And at the same time the good Dutch and good local organisations should try together to keep the poor children away from the extremist religious schools and to let them go to good schools. That would be a much more effective way of prevention against terrorism than to fight the former students of the radical schools in our own streets (in the Netherlands / Europe / US).

This lack of attention for religion and the distrust, ignorance and denial of the importance of the factor religion in a society, doesn't only apply to Dutch development workers, but to the Dutch society in general. Tolerance towards religious expressions in the Netherlands decreases every day. Of course the state should keep it's secular character, but this doesn't count for the public domain, since this domain is independent from the state and belongs to the society. Many immigrants in the Netherlands don't understand this radical secularism. People in underdeveloped countries understand it even less. It is clear that we will have to dig up our own religious roots if we want to have real contact with other groups, both with immigrants in the Netherlands and with local people in underdeveloped countries (of which the majority is religious). To improve the contact between different groups in the Netherlands, an interreligious dialogue could for instance be promoted. Interreligious and intercultural discussion and decision making platforms could be established, as it exists in many countries. Van Ardenne thinks that there will certainly be enough topics that can be discussed there. She also thinks that the Netherlands isn't that secular as would be expected if you look at how empty the churches are getting. Humans will always ask questions about the meaning of life and the past, present and future of the universe. Humans will always look for some kind of religious or spiritual support to find answers to their questions.



More protection against bitterness

When I had posted the "protection against bitterness" at Orkut, a friend from Pakistan posted the text "Happy is he who does good to others; miserable is he who expects good from others", by Hazrat Inayat Khan in reply. I first thought she had written the text herself, because it is so directly related to what I wrote... But it comes from Wahiduddin's web. So I will post it here, followed by my reaction and another text she quoted.

Happy is he who does good to others; miserable is he who expects good from others. Bowl of Saki, by Hazrat Inayat Khan

The spiritual person may be a teacher, a preacher, or a philanthropist. But in whatever form he may appear, the chief thing in his life is the service of mankind: doing good to another, bringing happiness to someone in some form. The joy that rises from this is high spiritual ecstasy, for every act of goodness and kindness has a particular joy which brings the air of Heaven. When a person is all the time occupied doing good to others, there is a constant joy arising; and that joy creates a heavenly atmosphere, creating within him that heaven which is his inner life. This world is so full of thorns, so full of troubles, pains and sorrows. In this same world he lives; but by the very fact of his trying to remove the thorns from the path of another, although they prick his own hands, he rises and this gives him that inner joy which is his spiritual realization.

Man's greatest enemy is his ego which manifests itself in selfishness. Even in his doing good, in his kind actions, selfishness is sometimes at work. When he does good with the thought that one day it may return to him and that he may share in the good, he sells his pearls for a price. A kind action, a thought of sympathy, of generosity, is too precious to trade with. One should give and, while giving, close the eyes. Man should remember to do every little action, every little kindness, every act of generosity with his whole heart, without the desire of getting anything in return making a trade out of it. The satisfaction must be in doing it and in nothing else.

Every step in evolution makes life more valuable. The more evolved you are, the more priceless is every moment; it becomes an opportunity for you to do good to others, to serve others, to give love to others, to be gentle to others, to give your sympathy to souls who are longing and hungering for it. Life is miserable when a person is absorbed in himself.

The Sufi therefore finds the only way out of the distress of life, the life which will always fail to prove true to one's ideal. He rises above it, taking all things as they come, patiently. He does not mind how he is treated. His principle is to do his best, and in that is his satisfaction. Instead of depending on another person to be kind to him, the Sufi thinks if he were kind to another person, that is sufficient. Every wise man in the long run through life will find in this principle the solution of happiness. For we cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves.

The principal teaching of Sufism is that the heart of man is the shrine of God, to recognize God in one's own heart, to feel His existence, presence, virtue, goodness, all manner of beauty. It must be remembered that the whole life around us is a life of falsehood. The more you see and experience the more you see how very false it is, how much disillusionment there is. The only way of getting over it is to light the lamp in the darkness of night, and all will be cleared. The secret of life is this, to produce beauty in ourselves. When beauty is produced in the heart, then all that breaks the heart vanishes and the whole universe becomes one single vision of the sublimity of God.

My reply:
It's beautiful, this text. In my blog I also wrote about this theme of helping others (see "Victims and others"). What you say about the characteristics of a spiritual person can be applied to Levinas as well, I think.

According to Levinas it is not a problem that people are selfish, and anyway this is our nature, we cannot decide to stop being selfish, permanently. Humans like to live and to be happy, if they wouldn't have that urge, if they wouldn't enjoy to be alive, they wouldn't survive for a long time. But we don't only care for ourselves fortunately, we do feel an urge / desire to help others also, sometimes. As Stefan said before, this urge for altruism can also easily be explained biologically. If I would not care for myself I would not struggle to survive myself. But if I only care for myself, and the people in my group also for themselves only, it is more difficult to survive as a group.

So humans are not only selfish but they also want to help others sometimes. They will want to help others in the first place when they love them, a mother will help her child, a man will help his beloved wife, etc. But it is also possible that I want to help somebody I don't know at all, because he does an appeal to me, because I feel a desire to end his suffering and because I am able to help him.

This urge to help others leads to a morally just action, if the action is based on an altruistic desire, not on selfishness combined with a rational calculation of possible future rewards. Levinas doesn't help the orphan because he thinks that this orphan can help him in return. Then it would be more logical to help powerful people instead of simple orphans.

He just sees that the child is hungry so he gives him food, he doesn't think about rewards.

And here's is a second text from the above mentioned website:
The Quran teaches about the love of man for man. The words in which the Quran has chosen to describe this relationship are mercy and kindness because the pinnacle of love is worship and so the word 'love' is appropriate for God alone. Hence, for human beings the words mercy and goodness are used instead of love because just as the perfection of love requires worship, the perfection of mercy requires kindness. (Even if the word 'love' has been used, in some places, to describe the relationship between men, the use of the word is to be interpreted in an allegorical sense. According to the Islamic teachings, real love is particular to God alone and all other loves are metaphorical and not real.)

In short, the holy word of God has used the word mercy for describing the relationships between mankind. For instance, God says that believers are those who "exhort one another to truth" (103:3) and "exhort one another to mercy" (90:17).
In another place, He says: "Surely Allah enjoins justice and the doing of good (to others) and the giving to the kindred."

Thus it is the command of God that men be just to others; of still greater virtue is that they do good to others; and an even greater virtue is that they show kindness to men like they would to someone near and dear to them. Can there be a better moral teaching in the whole world? The command to do good has not been confined to merely conferring favours on others, but has been taken to the next higher stage where the doing of good becomes an instinctive urge, described in the verse by the term 'giving to the kindred'. Although a person who does a good deed as a favour performs a virtuous act, there is some motivation of recompense and reward. Such a person may get annoyed if the favour is denied or not acknowledged, and sometimes, in the heat of emotions, he may remind others of favours conferred.
However, doing goodness out of an instinctive urge, which the Quran has compared to goodness done to the kindred, is the highest stage of performing virtuous acts, and there is no stage of virtue after it. Examples of this stage are the acts of goodness performed by a mother in caring for her child for which she seeks no recompense and gratitude.



Protection against bitterness

Levinas writes a lot about love & hate. Hate is destructive and dehumanizing. Love, on the other hand, means to create space, according to Levinas, it's a very strong positive power, a desire / need but not to obtain power or possession. It's a choice which isn't made - you don't make a rational mental list of 5 nice people and then you choose which one is the best to give your love to, you fall in love before you even realise what is happening.

I think that hate is the primary source of prejudices, discrimination and xenofobia / racism. And love is the primary solution against it. This sounds very much as a cliché but you can see that it works like this in practice. At a personal level I try to look for these signs, signs of hate and of love. It is possible for me personally to try to keep the door shut for hate and to open it wide for love.

Some time ago I wrote about bitterness/indifference. Here is what I wrote at Orkut:

(Picture: Veronika playing at night and a schizofrenic watching her)

I read "Veronika decides to die" from Paolo Coelho and it is exactly about what I had been thinking about the last weeks. Veronika decides to die because everything in her life is the same and she feels useless. From a kind of laziness she arranged her life in a boring and easy way, she didn't become a piano player as she actually wanted, but choose a boring simple job in a library. She doesn't feel any passion / desire / emotions, every day is the same and she expects it to become worse in the rest of her life (she is only 24 years old). She survives the suicide attempt and ends up in a mental hospital. The doctors tell her that she has got only one week left to live, her heart is damaged because of all the pills she took. In the institute her desire to live comes back. In the outside world she lived her life the way it was expected from her surroundings, she did everything to meet the expectations of her family and society in general. In the mental hospital it didn't matter how she behaved, she was supposed to be crazy anyway.

In the book Doctor Igor explains about a new 'disease' he discovered: bitterness. People who feel threatened by the unknown, create their own world in which they adapt completely to what's expected from them by their surroundings.
In the end they don't feel anything anymore, they don't have any desires and they don't care about their inner world, their lives are being lived completely as a routine. But for society and their surroundings it is usually no problem, the disease doesn't need to be cured since it is considered to be normal to live like that.

I can see the bitterness clearly around me and I can feel it when it tries to enter my soul. But I am learning better how I can put it to a halt. In the past I used to have many restrictive convictions, they are irrational thoughts that result from fear and a feeling of incertainty. They are thoughts like: "I always do everything wrong, I am hopeless, I am good for nothing." These thoughts are the result of being afraid to make mistakes, a lack of self-confidence, and they are the result of frustrations about things that went wrong in the past. If I drown myself in my fear, frustrations and sadness, everything I do will indeed go wrong, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I can ask myself: Is this really true? Did everything I did in the past go wrong, am I really good for nothing? Why do I think so negatively about myself, I exagerate this a lot. If I would be somebody else, an outsider, describing Esther, it wouldn't be that negative. So let's be fair to myself and stop exagerating.

With prejudices it works in the same way, but then towards other people. I am afraid and I am frustrated, and I blame the foreigners for that. It is all their fault and they are good for nothing. If I drown myself in my frustrated feelings for them I will in the end really believe my prejudices and I will behave to them like that, as a racist. But I can ask myself: Are all foreigners really the same? Is it such a black-white world of good and bad people? Are all of them really good for nothing? In fact I exagerate, I can't say this about the whole group, in fact I don't know them really, I just invented this. They are humans just like me, there are good people and bad people among them, like everywhere.

It works well, to ask myself this kind of questions: is it really like this or do I exagerate? The bitterness is like a sour poison that infiltrates in the skin and that makes everything sour that it finds on his way, if I don't resist my whole soul will be sour in the end. I should put on a special raincoat to protect my soul, so that the sourness cannot get any grip on my raincoat and so that it cannot reach my soul. This means that each time that somebody else says to me: "you are good for nothing", or that I almost start to think that myself, that I take my raincoat for protection so that I don't allow that thought to come in. I immediately start to wonder if it's really true and if not then I replace it by a realistic thought like: this time I made a mistake but this is an exception, the next time it will go well again.

Victims of xenofobia can use the same raincoat protection. If somebody says: "you Paki's are sick people" (as it was said today in my community, where a total fight between India and Pakistan arose), a Pakistani can reply: "no we are not, we are humans like you, we aren't sick". Maybe you don't even have to say it because it speaks for itself, but at least you must make sure that you are never going to think about yourself as a nation / race of sick people.

If you recognize hate and replace it by realistic thoughts, it is really a strong way to stop it. It is already very good if you can put a halt to growing bitterness in yourself. That's important because you can keep your dignity then, and you are not so vulnerable towards the hatred from others. And you can even make people who hate a little bit more conscious of that, and show that hate is a bad and destructive power. Because when you ask that to people, do you literally mean that all Pakistani are sick, and what kind of disease is it then? Then there aren't many people who don't admit - although a long discussion will be needed first probably - that it's not literally true what they said.



Victims and others

When I read "Totality and Infinity" of Levinas this Sunday, I realized at once that he has a special perspective with regard to people who ask for help.

At Orkut we had a discussion about victims. Somebody said that "lunatic liberals" divide the world in two groups: victims and victimizers, and that they thus constantly focus on the existance of injustice. So this sounds as the wolf and sheep story, but I don't claim that everyone is either a victim or a victimizer. Fortunately oppression and injustice is not that bad and the world isn't that clearly black and white. But he said that "you are only a victim if you choose to be one". So that's easy then, if it just depends on the choice of the victim himself.

So according to this person the only thing that matters is the attitude of the victim. It can be a pityful sad person who exagerates his bad luck a bit to get more help, a weak passive and completely dependent creature, then he is clearly a victim. Or he can be a person who actively tries to improve his faith, who doesn't want to depend on others if he can also help himself, then he is not a victim.

Levinas has a different view towards the role of a victim and his relation with a possible helper. The meeting with a victim, or with a person who asks me for help, is a variation of the general meeting with the other as described by Levinas. Levinas always mentions the stranger, the widow and the orphan as others whom we should help.

Now let's imagine a certain situation. An orphan in the street begs for food because he is hungry. Levinas passes by that street and sees the orphan. He will recognize the Other in the orphan and he will do anything to help the child. He will give the child all the food he has with him, even if it means he will be hungry himself for the rest of the day. He doesn't care because he can easily buy new food, and after he helped the child he will feel good, because he took his moral responsibility upon him and he knows that God smiles at him now.

Does he see the child as a weak dirty annoying dependent creature who should choose not to be a victim? No. The other - whoever he is, but in particular the stranger, the widow and the orphan - is higher than me. The other, whoever he is, breaks open my small isolated world. He shows me that there is so much more than only the small world of my own thoughts. The contact with the other, the appeal the other does to me, makes our relation ethical. The other is my teacher, my master. He puts into question my selfishness and egocentrism. The other shows me infinity, makes that I can transcend out of the prison of my own world. I should be thankful for that, because the other is the only one who can liberate me in such a way. So the orphan who asks me for help is not a weak victim but a strong human who does an appeal to my responsibility for him. He, the other, the orphan, has God and justice on his side. Our ethical relation is assymetric, but it is not me but him who is the highest. Not because of who he is, but because of the relation we have, because he does an appeal to me as the other to the same.

So Levinas' attitude to the orphan is fundamentally different from that of the boy who said "you choose to be a victim". If you think like Levinas, he and the orphan are equal as humans and in their ethical relation the orphan even has a role which is higher, so the orphan deserves a lot of repsect from Levinas. For the boy who spoke about victims the orphan is way down below, a sad dirty weak child that you pass by with a distance as big as possible.

Now, I often heard people say that Levinas is utopian, beause people who look all the time for how they could help orphans, widows and strangers, are very rare. Indeed if we would observe how people treat the orphan in the street, for sure there won't be many who react like Levinas. It's pity that human nature is not so good and ethical as Levinas would hope and that he looks too optimistically at humanity. For many people it's easy enough to walk past the orphan without helping him and they won't feel guilty about that for long, as would it be the case for Levinas, they just don't care.

Still this doesn't mean that Levinas' model of the meeting with the other is useless and unrealistic. When I pass by an orphan who needs my help, but whom I refuse to help, I am responsible for this not helping. Maybe Levinas just gives the food that the child needed right then, maybe the child will survive then. Maybe I will kill the child by not giving it food, then I am responsible. If God really exists and if he is infinity, as Levinas calls it, then he really looks over the shoulder of the orphan. The foundation of Levinas' philosophy is strong in my opinion.

It's because of this that I find it very beautiful what Raihaan and Sikander wrote about "respect for your neighbour". If your neighbour goes to sleep with an empty stomac, you are responsible. You could have shared your meal with him but you didn't.
In judaism there are many examples like this, and the moral instructions are clear. The Jews always have to prepare extra food and put an extra plate on the table, because Elijah might knock at the door at dinner time and you should always be able to offer him a meal. Instead of Elijah it could also be a stranger, who made a long journey and who is tired and hungry. You want to say to him then: "You are welcome, make yourself at home, please have dinner with us and take as much as you like, we have plenty of food." And if the stranger doesn't come this evening you can give your extra food to your neighbours :-)

I miss this attitude of hospitality incredibly much in the Dutch society nowadays. I think that that is the main obstacle for a peaceful integrated well fucntioning muliticultural society.
People are extremely individualistic and they only care about privacy. You see this everywhere, in families, in the media, in politics, with policymakers, etc. People are annoyed when they get visitors without any anouncement a long time in advance, and especially during dinner time, because that is the most important time to respect privacy :-(

With regard to how immigrants are treated y the government and in the society you can see clearly how this lack of hospitality is very destructive. The dominant attitude towards immigrants is: you don't belong here, we don't want to share our wealth with you, you can stay here if you assimilate and if you earn your own money and if you don't bother us, as soon as there is something in your behaviour that we don't like, we will kick you out of the country.

That is not how you should treat guests, is it? "You can come in my house - if it's really necessary - but only if you bring your own food and if you do exactly as I say. And you should always remember that this is my house, my property, it's not for you, I keep everything for myself, and if I don't like you I can kick you out of my house anytime, so be careful...



Respect for your neighbour

To tease the Islam hater of the "Suicidal attitude" post (not that he will read this) I will write once more about the Islam. I look for signs of humanism everywhere, now that I try to look at the world through Levinasian glasses. And with regard to the Islam I see many humanistic signs. This is then the philosophy behind the religion, not the practice of the daily life, which is often different. But if the philosophy is good and beautiful it does mean something. So I will again post a part of an Orkut Islam discussion.

NB: GN (a friend from Pakistan) replied to me about this discussion and said that "worship" is not the right word, in the way it is used in the translation of the girl from India.
The verse should be:
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ مِنْ رَسُولٍ إِلَّا نُوحِي إِلَيْهِ أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا أَنَا فَاعْبُدُون21:25
And We did not send before you any apostle but We revealed to him that there is no god but Me, therefore serve Me.

And so here is part of another Orkut Islam discussion:

A girl from India says:
Look at this line "The Quran says, "And We (Allah) did not send any Messenger before you but we inspired him (saying): There is no God but Allah. None has the right to be worshipped but I (Allah). So worship me." (21:25) so i was wondering....does god really go abt telling u to worship him and pray to him?? what is the difference between god and any other politician we see?? ...for that matter what is the difference between god and a cruel dictator who demands absolute obediance... what???

Esther says:
Interesting question. Muslims can answer it better than I but I like to try it anyway.

I think the verse you mentioned aims to prevent believers from following fake human religious leaders, which Allah considers as evil. So people can say that they speak in name of God but you must not believe anyone blindly. So the difference between God and any politician is that a politician is a limited biased human who preaches for the interests of his party or his personal
interest, while God is an immense metaphysical power, as big as the universe, who doesn't represent small local and maybe selfish interests but universal goodness for the whole humanity.

Raihaan from the UK says:
One cannot compare god to a politician. A politician, as Esther said has his or her own bias and with all human emotions that come into play, comes, power, greed, deception, betrayal, etc etc. Understand that, worship alone isn't what being a muslim is all about. Worship is only in part for the spiritual self between the person and god. What comes with worship is respect, self preservation and care and defense with conviction for one's belief. In addition comes the peaceful non aggresive propagation of the Islamic message and an invitation of those outside the faith to come and learn together about the ummah (faith).

Also note that respect for your neighbour, be him muslim or not, is of upmost importance. Yes there is a code that is to be adhered to, but its not all without reason. Submission to Allah is not something which means give up your life and freedom, but the opposite. To stay away from things that are deemed harmful for the self cannot be a bad thing can it? If you see it from the point of view of prevention being better than cure. Yes Islam is complex in nature, and it takes time to understand and adopt islamic principles such as prayer, zakaat (to give a percentage of wealth to charity) the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the fast (ramadhan). Granted, that it is alot to sacrifice, but without sacrifice, without stopping to think of those who dont have, who struggle, or to reflect on ourselves from time to time, then who are we? what is our purpose? It isn't just I and them, it should be us, people, humanity, as a whole, and never should we forget that.

Islam is about peace, perseverence, sacrifice, conduct, morality and of course worship. But worship is NOT the be all and end all of being muslim. Islam is more rounded than that and requires a lot more. Islam is tolerent. It accepts people with open arms if they show willingness to learn and understand, no one is turned away, there is no exclusivity. I hope this elaborates on Esthers post and clears up a little more.

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