Ethical receptiveness and the stranger

The text below is a long one again, but on the other hand you will have three weeks the time to read this post, since I won't post here the coming weeks, until the 22nd of July, because I will be leading the project of "The Dream Factory".

During my vacation in Spain I read the book “The philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas”, from Jan Keij. As a writing exercise I will apply a chapter of that book – called “Ethical receptiveness” (Ethische raakbaarheid) to the specific situation of an ethical relation / meeting between a native (me) and a stranger (the other).

Ethical receptiveness / affectedness means that I am sensitive for the suffering of others, that I am not indifferent towards it. This receptiveness is a condition which enables ethical responsibility. If I could not be touched by the suffering of another person, I wouldn’t feel an impulse to take my responsibility for the other upon me. I experience the being touched by the other as being called by him, as be
ing directed towards him.
Ethical receptiveness makes it possible that in my actions, I am not only guided by selfish motives, but that I can put them aside for a while and care for another person. His request to me contains an absolute ethical command and principle, which can serve as a guide for my ethical actions. The principle says t
hat I am not allowed to be indifferent towards others. It’s a command to care about their well-being.

To be directed towards the other
As long as I am alone in a world with ‘things’ only (no other humans), I can do whatever I like. But as soon as the vulnerable but also demanding face of the other appears in front of me, I must reply to that. I can refuse to react, but with that act I still cannot make the original demand from
the other undone. Anyone can be the other who makes this request to me. It can be my neighbour, a good friend, my family, or a complete stranger. But according to Levinas, some people are “the others par excellence”, namely the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Why specifically these groups? Because they are extra vulnerable, with their lack of a partner, parents or a home. And because of that, their command to me becomes stronger, the urgency of the appeal and my obligation to react, and my responsibility for the other, they will become extra big. In an ethical relation between me and the other, my attention should be directed towards the other. With his appeal, the other awakes me from my dreams in my isolated selfish world and that I start to care for the well-being of the other.

In case of a stranger
In case of me as a native person and the other as a stranger, this means that the stranger makes an appeal to me and that I am obliged to respond to that appeal. The central question in this respect is: “What can I do for the stranger?” What does it mean concretely that I am responsible for how I treat him, for his well-being?
To ask these questions, which are focused on the well-being of the stranger, is a completely different approach than to act out of selfishness only. Then the question would be: “What can I do to avoid being bothered by the stranger?”
The main answer to the question: “What can I do for the stranger?”, is: be hospitable, respond to his needs. My house is not only there to offer me protection towards the surroundings, a safe place where I can rest. The fact that I have a house with a
door which I can open to the world, means that I can use it to offer protection and a place to rest to my guests as well. My house offers me a place from which I can be hospitable and show solidarity with the stranger.
This question – what can I do for the stranger – is a totally different question than: “What can I do to keep my house all for myself?” or “What are the conditions that the stranger should fulfill before I would be willing to accept him in my house?” In the second
case, at a national level, it means that strangers first have to learn the local language, to get used to the local habits and standards and values, to adapt/assimilate to the local culture and to behave well, before we are willing to let them in. I don’t mean that it would not be a good thing for a stranger to learn the local language and to adapt to the local culture, I just wanted to say that the second approach from the natives is completely selfish and only defines the obligations of the strangers, not of their own obligations with regard to the reception of strangers.

Directness to the other should be my focus in an ethical relation. The native is responsible for how he treats the stranger. The other way around, the stranger is also responsible for how he treats the native, but that is in the first place his own responsibility, not the responsibility of the native. This doesn’t mean that the native should accept whatever the stranger is doing to him, and that I should open the doors of my house widely to barbarian strangers who break down everything in my house. If my guests turn out to misbehave themselves I am totally entitled to put them out of my house. But my first aim should be to give the stranger – whom I don’t know yet – a warm welcome and hospitable reception. I should not lock away my house to the whole world to avoid the risk of letting unwelcome strangers in.

An asymmetric relation
Another important issue in relation to ethical receptiveness, is the asymmetry in the relation between me and the other. Levinas says that I experience the appeal from the other as coming fr
om high above me, since he turned out to be able to demand from me that I should reply to him, he sends me an order. But at the same time he is “less than me”, because he makes an appeal to me in his need and fragility, and I can give him what he needs, so I have more than him. From a selfish perspective, I am inclined to consider the other, the weak stranger without a home, as less than me. I possess my house, I am powerful, he possesses nothing, he is depending on me. And he is less than me in house because it is my house, with my rules, which he doesn’t know yet, he doesn’t know how he should behave in my house, so I will tell him what I want him to do. I am his master, I can tell him: “If you don’t do as I say I will kick you out of my house.”

According to Levinas, however, it is always the other who is my
master, not the other way around. The other awakes me from my isolated selfish world, he brings something new in my house, something that makes that I start to think again about the old things in my house which I always took for granted, I start to look with new eyes, I can see that there is more than my own small world. And the other makes an appeal to my responsibility for him, I cannot continue with my private business, I have to open up and to respond to what the other asks from me. This waking me up, shaking me, opening up and widening my world, this is something I cannot do all by myself, I need the other for that. That is why the other is my master. The other can show me my responsibility, my obligation as a host to offer hospitality to the stranger. This means that I can not treat him as some dirt on the floor, a stand in the way or an inferior creature. I should treat him as an equal human being, with respect.

Thou shalt not kill
A last remark related to ethical receptiveness and the stranger concerns the absolute ethical principle: “Thou shalt not kill”. Levinas understands this principle in the broadest possible sense, not only in a literal but also in an abstract sense. To ignore the other, to silence him to dea
th, or to reduce him from a human being to an object, an image in my mind, is also deadly. The command expresses in fact a continuous reluctance to use violence towards the other.
According to Levinas it is impossible to kill another human. It is not impossible in a literal sense – it happens often enough – but in an ethical sense it is impossible. It is possible to kill a human being, but only when you no longer look at the other as a human being, as a unique particularity. An abstraction, a reduction from a human to an object is necessary to be able to harm / kill him. In that case, in my perception I don’t kill a unique individual, but I kill an exemplary of a category, a group, a race.

Keij says: “Only through an abstraction, by replacing a concrete person by an abstract category, can I commit violence, can I harm that person, then it becomes a nigger, a dirty Turk, yellow peril, or a homosexual. So violence requires reductionism, it requires the reduction from a unique personality to a subhuman.”

Discrimination and racism
Discrimination and racism are forms of this kind of violence towards the other, in most cases the stranger. The process of reductionism through which the stranger is being dehumanized takes place in the form of prejudices, stereotypes, exaggerations of perceived negative characteristics of a group, generalizations, aggressiveness.

By reducing a person to a group, category, culture or race, I can forget about the real person and replace him by an image that I drew of him in my mind, a picture of a category of ba
rbarian monsters. When I successfully replaced the person by my image of a monster, it has become very easy to use violence against him, because that is what one should do to monsters and demons. To recognize this process provides the key to counteract and prevent racism. The best cure is direct personal contact in a constructive and respectful setting. The stranger should get a chance to wake up the native from his selfish perspective of fear / dislike / hatred towards strangers, which resulted in racism. (In my opinion this is the most common form of racism, but it does exist the other way around as well, that strangers consider natives as inferior or other groups of strangers.) With direct contact I can put away the images I invented of the other and look at the real other who is standing in front of me and who is talking to me. He can explain to me why my image of him doesn’t fit. Only real people matter, not the images in other peoples minds.

Why listen to Levinas?
So according to Levinas, it’s an absolute ethical principle that we should try not to harm the other and that we should care for his well-being. How does he come to this conclusion, how is his principle founded? Why should we do what he says and not just do what is good for our own well-being? In the end this principle cannot really be founded on opinions or reasons. If you keep asking why, in the end there is no answer. Levinas just believes that it is ethically just to be directed to the other. But there is one more thing that can be said about it: if I care only about my own well-being and not about the we
ll-being of the other, it means I am indifferent to what I do to the other, I don’t feel responsible. And that means that the chance is big that sooner or later I will use violence to the other, I will do him harm. It is very difficult to construct an ethical theory in which it doesn’t matter what people do to each other, it is very difficult to build a peaceful happy society based on that principle. So if I want to be an ethical just person, to do good deeds, to be responsible, to listen to my conscience, I think it is inevitable that I should listen to the appeal that the other makes to me.


Mysterious stranger cartoon


No Matter Where You Go, There You Are
by Luka Bloom

I'll sing to you of a carpenter, a Muslim man
He was forced to join an army, he chose to leave his land
He was born in Northern Africa, with the desert all around
He loved his innocent childhood in the bosom of a desert town
Mohamed left Algeria, his family and his friends
Knowing he would never see his loved ones ever again

You must go, follow your star
No matter where you go, there you are
No matter where you go, there are you
So don't let go of what you know to be true

Mohamed went to Amsterdam, to Paris and to Rome
Nowhere in these cities did Mohamed feel at home
He'd walk the streets into the night, thrown-out wood to find
Making wooden boxes occupied his mind
Little wooden boxes in a line on Mohamed's stand
Bringing food and shelter to a Muslim man

You must go, follow your star
No matter where you go, there you are
No matter where you go, there are you
So don't let go of what you know to be true

One summer's day in Paris, he heard a haunting sound
Of a lonesome Irish fiddle, he let his tools fall down
Looking up he could not see the man, whose music filled this place
But he knew his heart was breaking, and the tears rolled down his face
Mohamed walked until he saw the man, with a fiddle to his chin
He stood and let the music glow, underneath his skin
He felt longing for Algeria, and loving for this song
How the music of a stranger helps the dreamer move along
The carpenter and the fiddler became the best of friends
And Mohamed lives in Galway, where the music never ends

You must go, follow your star
No matter where you go, there you are
No matter where you go, there are you
So don't let go of what you know to be true

By the Claddagh in the evening, you might see this southern man
Selling boxes, toys and fiddles, made with Muslim hand
Don't you feel no pity, nor think he is alone
For the music in his spirit, is his shelter and his home
Mohamed's fire ignited with the ancient jigs and reels
He sometimes chants in Arabic across the Galway fields
His prayers go to Moher, out to the Atlantic sea
And echo to Algeria to the land he had to flee

You must go, follow your star
No matter where you go, there you are
No matter where you go, there are you
So don't let go of what you know to be true

There's a woman in Algeria, she looks across the sand
And hears a loved one's prayer from the distant land...

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