Generalization as the denial of alterity

After all the reading and thinking I did so far, this weekend I thought at once that the process of generalisations is one of the key factors with regard to problems in intercultural contact and phenomena like xenofobia and racism.

The process of generalisation is a key factor not only with regard to the well-being of the multicultural society, but it's also a key factor both in Levinas' thinking and Derrida's thinking. So you could say that the process of generalization forms the linking pin between the theoretical and philosophical part of my dissertation and the practical society part of it.

When I just started to study this topic, half a year ago, I was struck by the very concrete and clear example (sorry that blog post is in Dutch) that the Moroccan-Dutch writer Fouad Laroui gave, an example of how Levinas' "humanism of the other" was violated in the multicultural society. He described a meeting during lunch time with a colleague at his university. His colleague asked: "how do you think as a Muslim about..." "I don't think as a Muslim", Laroui replied, "I think as myself". This colleague has an image in his mind that all Muslims think in a certain way. In fact Laroui consistently refuses to say anything about his religiousconvictions, arguing that the world would be a better place if everybody kept their beliefs to themselves, but the idea that there would be Moroccans who aren't Muslim didn't come to the mind of that colleague. He could at least first have asked Laroui about his faith, but he didn't find that necessary.
The Islam and the group of people who follow this religion have some common features, as a group. There are some characteristics that you can find more often in that group than in another group, e.g. with regard to the clothes people wear. But the group characteristics don't apply to each individual in that group. An individual can never be reduced to the group or category that somebody else puts him in. Laroui doesn't think as a Muslim, he doesn't think as a Moroccan, he thinks as himself and he is unique in that.
People invent an image of a certain group in society, that they are all like this or that, that's a generalization. Wants they have created an image of the other, they don't look at the real other in front of them anymore. The colleague doesn't ask Laroui himself about his opinion about a certain topic, he asks it to the image of a standard Islamic Moroccan that he has invented in his head.

And this weekend there was another article from Laroui in my newspaper, also about generalisations. He spoke about the riots in France and about a declaration that was signed by among others Tariq Ramadan. He spoke about the exagerations and generalizations that were mentioned in that declaration, as if the immigrants in France are treated by the French government as the Indians were treated by the Americans. There were many simplicications in the document and comparisons that didn't fit. About the riots in France he said that a same kind of exaggeration process took place there as well, people exaggerated and they created images of people and of themselves which aren't real. But people start to believe in these images and forget the real people. An image was created as if the immigrants were all as Muslims fighting a jihad against the non-believers, an image that was epxressed both by the outsiders who analysed the situation and by some of the rebels themselves, who at once started to shout Allah Akbar. This while the riots were in fact not religious, they were aimed as a protest against living in the poor and dirty ghettos where people have no perspectives on improvement.

People invent something, they start to exaggerate and then they replace the real people in front of them by the image they have created of them. That process is what is described by Levinas, it means I totalize / dehumanize / kill the other person who is standing in front of me. It can happen either at the individual level or at a collective level. At the individual level it means that I apply one feature of a person to the person as a whole. At the collective level it means for instance, as I said, that somebody assumes that all Moroccans are Muslim. Or that a person knows that this counts for the majority of that group and that so, when he meets a random Moroccan, the first person thinks he will be Muslim (a prejudice) and that he doesn't ask if that assumption is correct. (And when people assume with every Moroccan they meet that it will be a thief, this kind of prejudices are much worse of course.)

This process of exaggeration and simplification is somehow related to a longing for a clear and simple story, for a black and white picture. This is why simple action movies are so pleasant to look at: the bad people are very evil, everyone can see that, there is no doubt about it, and the good people are completely good. The perspective doesn't changed during the film, it doesn't become more nuanced. You put your labels of good and bad on the people and it remains like that the whole film, very easy and assuring. But the reality is not like that, we shouldn't put that kind of labels on groups or even races of people, we should look at individuals, at what they say and how they behave. They shouldn't be reduced to a category that we have put them in.

This longing for simple images is somehow related to Heideggers longing for enrootedness, a longing for authenticity and the simplicity of the past. A world in which everything is clear and unchangable. This longing is opposed to the desire to welcome the totally other, the complete stranger. A longing to look further than your own limited world.

The theoretical way in which Derrida and Levinas describe their ethics of hospitality and humanism of the other as opposed to the philosophy of enrootedness from Heidegger, forms a linear parallel with the opposition between on the one hand a neutral nuanced and precise way of describing behaviour and situations, while recognizing the uniqueness of individuals and the respect they deserve as humans, and on the other hand the generalizations and simplifications that are made, through which an attempt is made to reduce individuals to the categories that they have been put in by others.

This weekend I read a text about Derrida's think which describes this distinction between on the one hand enrootedness and simplistic generalizations and on the other hand acceptance of alterity and recognition of the fundamental complexity and ambiguity of the reality.

Here's a short summary of this text:
"Derrida describes Plato's world of ideas. This is a very clear world, the ideas are clearly defined, they are perfect. There are no doubts about the characteristics of the ideas, everything is completely transparant in that world, according to Plato. But the real world is not so simple as this world of ideas. In the real world there is a lot of ambiguity, indecisivenes and perishableness with regard to how we look at the world. These are forms of non-identity, which means that objects don't coincide with themselves. There always remains a distance, there is a form of total alterity which cannot be grasped. People who see the real world as a transparent Platonic world of ideas, try to lock alterity / otherness out of ones own identity. (This is the same kind of process of locking everything that is foreign away from what is authentic.) But although I can do everything to stay away from the totally other / complete stranger, I cannot stay away from the alterity, the stranger that I have within me. This is why this authentic identity philosophy is in contradiction with itself.

For any object to have a meaning / signification for a human being there has to be a distance between the subject and the object. There is always a distance / difference between my "self" / the same, and alterity. But in the identity / enrootedness philosophy, this distance is supposed to exist no longer. A distance / difference is needed to be able to approach an object."

For contact between people this counts even more than for the way a subject approaches an object. Levinas emphasizes this all the time, that I am totally different from the other, I should never try to reduce the other to the same. Because this means that I define the other, I create an image of him, I kill the real person and replace him by the drawing that I made. This is what happens when I generalise, when I reduce a real person to an invented category. This is a process of dehuminazation, I replace the human being that stands in front of me by a picture, a drawing that I made on paper, an unchangeble object. Somethings that comes from me, not from the other. Something that cannot protest against what I do to it, I can erase it and make a new drawing. I can make a drawing of an object, I can present it to others the way I see that object, but I cannot do that to a human being. The other can only speak for himself, I cannot speak in his name.


I hope this abstract description is still understandable for non-philosophers. You can always post some questions for clarification here. People sometimes wonder why these philosophers write down these complex theories about identity, distance, difference, ontology, the world of ideas, etc., and how it could ever be useful for the concrete practice. But I think it's very useful. I can translate the abstract descriptions to concrete situations. I can use it to recognize processes of generalisations and simplications, and I hope that I can explain that to people and stimulate them to present their views in a more nuanced way and to stop reducing individuals to categories. This doesn't always work, but sometimes I succeed in explaining that to others and then I am happy :-)


And here's an msn chat with an Orkut friend from Pakistan based on this blog text. It shows how e.g Derrida and Heidegger make it difficult for us as their students to state anything with certainty. When I point to others and claim that they are generalizing it might very well be the case that I am generalizing myself as well. When I am critical towards others behaviour I should be at least as critical towards my own behaviour.
And how can I know for sure that this generalization mechanism really exists and that it is really one of the main causes of racism? How can I know that there's a pattern in the different situations that I analyse? And what are my arguments to back up my claim - with Levinas - that this type of generalizations are dehumanizing / immoral? So these questions are addressed in this chat... (of which I saved only half of it, unfortunately)
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