Work of justice
This Saturday I will participate in a conference about Levinas in Utrecht (lecturer: dr. Marcel Poorthuis). In the introduction note the question is posed: “Are human beings capable of real altruistic compassion?” One could say that every act which is supposed to be done only to help somebody else, is in reality based on egoism. On could cynically / sceptically ask if Levinas’ ideas aren’t utopian / too far away from reality.
But I am thinking more and more that his ideas are not utopian at all. All “normal” / healthy humans (without a mental illness or handicap) have a conscience. We all distinguish between good and evil. We can have different opinions about what is good and what is bad in certain situations, but our most fundamental feelings about good and bad, and fair and unfair, have big overlaps between people all over the world. These feelings are quite universal I think. I personally have a strong feeling about the things I consider as good / bad and just / unjust in the world, and I can explain why I find a certain situation unfair for a certain group. I can explain why I think that unnecessary harm is being done to them. I can always disagree with other people and we can talk about our disagreements. And my own views are of course only subjective, or at best intersubjective, never completely objective. They always remain my own personal views where other people can disagree with, but that doesn’t matter. I can explain why I see it like that and there will always be some universality in my personal ideas, next to the particularity of my perspective. At least the way I can hear my conscience speak, the way I feel it, that is something which all humans can hear / feel. And my conscience is woken up by the face of the other, who makes an appeal to my responsibility for him. That’s a universal happening, something that already happened before I even noticed what actually happened.
I can see it happen everywhere around me, what Levinas describes, that people are woken up by others and that they are really concerned for the other and that they take their responsibility upon themselves to respond, to open up, to help the other. Of course – unfortunately – the opposite happens just as much, that people look away for the face of the other, that they close their eyes, that they lock themselves up and dehumanize the other.
But I know that real unconditional compassion exists. And it doesn’t matter if personal interests are involved as well, if people want to help others because they feel better themselves afterwards. As long as I really look the other in the face, when I am touched by the appeal of the other and when I sincerely respond to that, then everything is alright.
As I said before, my heart stretches out its arms towards justice. I can only be happy, I can only completely be myself, I can only be at peace with myself, when I listen to my heart and try to move towards justice. You can say that I am selfish that I do my work only because I want to be happy myself, more for that reason than that I really want to help others. But that kind of criticism doesn’t really make sense I think. I don’t do it for status or to become rich or to impress others. I follow my heart and what my heart wants is to really help other people. The happiness that it leads to for me personally is more a by-product, a side-effect.
For me personally it is not so difficult to know what I consider as injustice, and why. When I talk to sheep I can feel that strongly and when I talk to wolves as well. When people are discriminated because of the colour of their skin, or because of their religion or culture, when people dehumanize each other because they see each other as enemies, they hate each other and have forgotten that the others are human beings as well, that’s injustice. When people have no chances at all to go to school or find a job, because they were born in desperate hopeless surroundings, when people die of hunger, who have to fight so hard everyday just to stay alive, or when they die of diseases that could easily be cured if the health services were accurate, when people are being oppressed, derived of their universal human rights, when people are put in prison without having committed a crime, when people are excluded from the society because they are foreigners, all of that is injustice. It makes me happy to do my work because I help those people, people who have such difficult lives and who deserve a better life. With my work I can really do something, I can make concrete improvements.
And here are some lyrics that I find very beautiful, lyrics about people who never give up in their struggle for justice, because they have something very strong inside of them and they know that they are not alone. What is so beautiful about it, is that the sheep don't play the victim role here, they fight for their rights and they will never give up. The songs are both related to South-Africa - the land of sheep and wolf - the first is the well-known anti-Apartheid song from Labi Siffre and the second is from Stef Bos, from when he lived in South-Africa. His songs originated from looking at the country while he travelled from north to south, from Mpumalanga to the Cape, "through that never ending land, full of contradictions, a land I started to love more and more". In the CD booklet the song is introduced with the words: " You have to write lyrics with a message of hope. Melancholy is a luxoury only the rich can afford themselves."
Labi Siffre - Something inside so strong
The higher you build your barriers
The taller I become
The farther you take my rights away
The faster I will run
You can deny me
You can decide to turn your face away
No matter, cos there's....
Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
Tho' you're doing me wrong, so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh no, something inside so strong
The more you refuse to hear my voice
The louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho
Your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time
You squander wealth that's mine
My light will shine so brightly
It will blind you
Brothers and sisters
When they insist we're just not good enough
When we know better
Just look 'em in the eyes and say
I'm gonna do it anyway
Stef Bos - You in the dark (translated)
You in the dark
You standing in the night
You looking at the sky
And waiting for a miracle
You in the labyrinth
You who has been forgotten
You who searches the light
And who wants to break the chains
You who continues to fight
Against the mills in the wind
Who continues to believe in love
Holding on against the tide
Your are not alone with your thoughts
You are not alone with your dreams
You are not alone standing there
Because we are on your side
PS: His saying into my mind after seeing his photo in your this post.