Dehumanisation of the other

So some weeks ago I met “Simon” in Geneva (see the post below about the acceptance of differences). When I entered the city I noticed that there were many nationalities there, many Senegalese in the internet café, and people with all kind of skin colours and backgrounds, I didn’t expect that. And while talking with Simon, I saw that he noticed every headscarf that he saw and that he was especially shocked when he saw a burka (at first I didn’t know what he was looking at).
Simon and I are interested in the same kind of topics. I am interested in the position of immigrants in a society and the position of women in a certain culture because I think that immigrants should not be discriminated and women should not be oppressed, so I am interested in these issues because I want to see how I can help them. Simon is also interested in e.g. the rights of women within Islam. Why is that so? Partly for the same reasons. Simon is also against the oppression of women, he finds freedom very important, not to be oppressed by the state, not to be oppressed by radical religious leaders.

During our lunch we discussed the headscarfs and we spoke about the Orkut community “The Quran is not from God”. I asked him then why he wanted to support a community which is so offensive for Muslims and he laughed indifferently about that. So I wondered why Simon was so shocked about seeing a burka, while I hadn’t noticed them at all. I was wondering at that moment if he would really care about these women, if he had put himself in their shoes and felt sad because of the inhuman oppression they have to live with. At that moment I thought: “No that’s not possible, because if he would really care for them and accept them as they are, he would not make jokes in Orkut about what is very important for them in their lives, their faith; the Islam."

I kept thinking about that, and later I decided that it is possible that he does really care about these women. The problem is that he cares, but from the position of his own perspective, a non-Muslim, he didn’t succeed (yet) in really stepping into the shoes / burka of these ladies to feel how they feel. In fact he doesn’t accept them as they are in the same way as he accepts me as I am, he thinks they are backward and he wants to change them. I read an article from a Dutch journalist – Kees Broere
in Nairobi who explained how anger can lead to violence, in the case of Africa the anger about colonialism, and anger in the Islamic world about the feeling that their history came to an end, partly due to the West, according to Broere. The terrorists who act in name of the Islam are barbarians from the 14th century who now have access to weapons of the 21st century. He draws a parallel with the anger that can be found in Africa against colonialism. He quotes the writer Frantz Fanon who talks about “the systematic denial of the other, the African”. That kind of systematic denial is what leads to the biggest anger. Broere says that if you want to stop terrorism, you have to do something about the cause as well, the anger about the denial of otherness.


The “systematic denial of the other”, what a powerful way to describe the problem, and it is not for nothing that it reminds me of Levinas immediately. I had a big fight with another Orkuter about whom I have written before (I called him Brian then so let’s do that again). It was also about the denial of the other, in this case with regard to Pakistan.

Brian said in an Orkut discussion:

“The state education system in Pakistan most often numbs the soul away from feeling "shame" in mass murder.”
He thought that since the education system has blown away the soul, Pakistani cannot feel any feelings like shame anymore.
He said to an Indian Orkuter: “The reason you have any human feelings such as 'shame' is because you are not a Pakistani.”
Simple logic shows that this implies that Pakistani don’t have any human feelings.

I was totally shocked when I read that and when he didn’t take back his words when I asked him that, I banned him from my community. Then he started an anti-Esther campaign among all his friends and mine to say that I banned him because he criticized the State Education System in Pakistan.
After some endless discussions I convinced him to admit that “Pakistani’s are human beings just like the rest of us” and I unbanned him (although he still dared to add to that “but the state educational programs strip them of human compassion and empathy for anyone who is deemed as "other"”).
Why was I so much shocked by this, more than most Pakistani in the community? It is because it is one of the clearest examples I have seen so far of what Levinas calls “the dehumanisation of the other”.

Brian has invented an image in his head of barbarian Pakistani who got an education for extremism and who are happy with the killings of innocent people (as long as they are considered as the enemy), and for the rest who are completely without compassion, shame or empathy, just some kind of aggressive monsters. He doesn’t care to add to that that this doesn’t count for all Pakistani, that this counts in fact only for the terrorists who are coming from Pakistan (and even though they are doing terrible things, this doesn't mean that they can't have any feelings like shame).

He has invented an image for a category and by definition what he says applies to everybody in that category. Human beings are no longer unique individuals with human feelings and human thoughts, they are reduced to a category of non-humans. This is the very worst thing you can do to a human being, to take away his personal humanness. I have many Orkut friends who are Pakistani: Sikander, GN, Umayr, Rizwan, Tanzeel, Annie, Zyad, Asiya, etc. How can Brian say that they cannot feel shame or compassion?! They are so friendly, polite, hospitable; they can be an example for others. Then it really hurts to read that Pakistani don’t have human feelings.

When people say things like that there are no ethics left, no moral, no respect, no rights for the other, anything can be done then to this “category”, including the Holocaust. I don’t say that Brian is like Hitler, not at all. But what he said can lead to the same kind of disasters as the Second World War. So that is why I took it seriously what he said.

When unique individuals are being reduced to a category, their freedom is taken away from them, they become imprisoned in their category. When Sikander is asking me if I am feeling alright, he cannot not be showing empathy or compassion for me… That’s not possible, since he is a Pakistani and they don’t have human feelings, so… It doesn’t matter how kind he is to me, he will always be defined as an aggressive barbarian by Brian (at least his statement about Pakistani implies that). Then Brian will say: “Ok ok, there are some positive exceptions, there are some Pakistani who do show some compassion, but I never met many of them.” That only makes it worse. The category itself is still defined as sub-humans.

So nobody should ever say that, that “Pakistani don’t have human feelings” or that “blacks are lazy” or that “Moroccans are criminals” or that “you cannot expect a woman to understand something so complicated”.

At once I understood how it works, this process of dehumanisation of the other. You have had some negative personal experiences, or you have read something, and that makes that you disapprove of a certain culture or religion (or race). Each time you are being confronted / hindered by this irritation, so you start to think more and more negative. Then you start to see the positive signs less and you exaggerate the negative signs. In the end you really think that e.g. Pakistan is a country full of barbarians. It is not a race of barbarians, it would be possible to change the culture, but that is a heavy job for such a big country to change the whole population. And once you have defined Pakistani as barbarians instead of normal human beings, the dehumanisation is almost complete and you can totally forget about their human feelings.
At once I saw a parallel with Heidegger’s views towards Jews and Levinas’ criticism to that. Heidegger also dehumanises the other, in this case the Jews. They become a category in his eyes with inevitable group characteristics, they are no longer equal and unique human beings.

I wrote to Brian:

“I have got two questions for you:

1. Do you consider Heidegger to be a racist / anti-Semite?

This is how he thinks:
Autochthony is important. He liked to go back to nature, to be in the black forest and see the German farmers and shepards who have lived the same lives there as their parents, grandparents etc, centuries and centuries back. He liked to read German poetry (the poet Hölderin) about nature, he liked the quietness and the contact with his roots there in the mountains.

He refused to accept job applications from Jews at the university. Why was that, did he think that Jews are an inferior race? No. But he thought that since they are Diaspora, they are not rooted in the German land.

The Jews don't read the poetry of Hölderin with the same sentiments as Germans. It is not about their land he is writing, not about their roots, they have their own roots. He thought Jews would not so well be able to do their work at the university because of that.

If he would have worked at an Israelian university, if he were consistent, he should have preferred to accept Jews at the university (who had been living there for many generations) over non-Jews.

2. If you would work at a university and a Pakistani would apply for a job, would you read his CV with the same interest as from non-Pakistani, or would you expect him or her to have a lack of feelings like shame and compassion?”

To the first question he said that he doesn’t know enough about Heidegger to answer it. To the second one he said that he would give a Pakistani a fair chance and treat the application in the same way as from a non-Pakistani, fortunately :-)

In summary, this fight has helped me to see clearer what the problem is with Heidegger’s discrimination of Jews and I also understand the criticism from Levinas better. And it is not so difficult to find similar examples in today’s world. The way I explained at Orkut what is wrong with the sentence about Pakistani, that is what I am going to explain in my dissertation following the thoughts of Heidegger and Levinas.



Acceptance of differences

Let's not fight like cats and dogs
Last week I met an Orkuter in real life. I have had discussions with him at Orkut for more than two years. I would like to tell you about this experience of meeting an Orkuter with whom I totally disagree with regard to most political topics. I will call him Simon in this post, as I did
last time.

I always like to meet Orkuters in real life, because I like to see the difference between impressions that people give in the online world and in the offline world. In the online world the physical world is absent, I don’t know how somebody looks like (only from a picture maybe), I don’t know if he smiles much, I don’t know with what kind of accent he talks.

Almost everybody I met so far was the same or nicer in real life than I expected, the same counts for Simon. So the question which intrigues me is: can I really get to know somebody whom I have never met in real life? And the question is even: Is it true that the real nature of a person is more visible in the online world? People who are not familiar with the online world are often worried that people present a more beautiful image of themselves than how they really are. I also heard my former sociology professor say that contacts in the online world are just superficial and that they never last long. I don’t agree with him of course. Two and a half year is pretty long and who knows how much longer it will go on, the discussions and the friendships. Some discussions are at a high level, certainly not superficial.

I am drawing a cartoon about a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim burrying their differences... That's a good one!

But of course there are differences between the online and the offline world. As I said before, I noticed something which Levinas described as that the face of the other is missing. I don’t talk to a person who is standing in front of me. I talk to a profile with a description and an image. It can easily happen that I forget that this profile is in fact a real human being. I can call the other whatever I like, troll, moron, devil. The other cannot slap me in the face when I say that. Maybe I don’t even realise that I am insulting / hurting him or her. And another thing is that because of the lack of physical space, there is no territory. I cannot say: you are here in the Netherlands so you have to respect the laws of our country and adapt a bit to our culture. There are no general laws / constitution, there is no dominant culture to which the “foreigners” should adapt. There are no foreigners. It is as if we are all together on Mars. This means that India and Pakistan are located in the same space, and Israel and Palestine, and Muslims and Islam-haters, and Jews and anti-semites, etc. This while it can easily be the case in the offline world that people are not so often confronted with people with totally opposed views or people whom they consider as “the enemy”. Among like-minded people you can repeat everyday how stupid the others are. At Orkut the others are listening to that mudslinging all the time and they are shouting back .
So this is why there are often many serious insults posted at Orkut and many hard fights. It is nice to see how much friendlier the contact is with most of them in real life. I don’t know which world is more real, the offline world or the online one. Both worlds are real. But it helps to realise that for many Orkuters there is a difference between how they behave in both worlds.

I wrote before about our totally opposed views: http://levinasandculture.blogspot.com/2006/05/justice-and-tolerance.html

I said then:

“What I personally find one of the most difficult things, and which is something of which I can see that others are having difficulties with it as well, is to be tolerant towards people who have ideas which are in my view very harmful towards what I consider as justice.”

And that counts for Simon, I think that his ideas are harmful, when people act according to these ideas. In that text I try to show that Simon's remarks are racist, that between the lines you can read the assumption that black people are more often lazy than white people. Of course Simon denies that, but he didn’t convince me that it is not racism.

So in the beginning I was wondering: do I want to be friends with somebody of whom I consider some of his ideas to be racist? Would I want that if I were black or if I were a Muslim? And my answer was yes but I didn’t really know why. I think now that the reason why I can accept him as he is, is because he totally accepts me as I am.

Our views are as far away from each other as possible, with regard to almost all political topics you can think of. The only thing we agreed about last Thursday was that children who like to work with their hands and who are good at that, that they should not endlessly be forced into an intellectual abstract education. And we also agreed that in an anarchistic state there would be different communities and there would also be communities for women who like to wear burka’s, so they would be free to wear them then. But that’s it, for the rest we are totally opposed.

So why do I find it so important that he accepts me as I am? That he likes to meet me and talk 2.5 hours with me although he thinks that my ideas are completely crazy and stupid and bad. It means that the degree of agreeing with ones opinions is completely separate from the judgement of a person as that person. I can be considered to be a completely mad lunatic liberal but the personal judgement is not based on that category. We can be friends despite our differences because we accept from the other that the other person has got these views. If he would try to convince me of his ideas and if the level of friendliness would go down the more I stubbornly refuse to change my mind, it would be over soon. Simon can be very convinced of his being right, it is not that he listens to what I say because he would be at the point of changing his mind, not at all (and the other way around it’s the same). But still he accepts the differences. That is true tolerance and open-mindedness, to treat the other as completely equal no matter what his or her opinions are. That’s very important to have a good respectful (intercultural) relation between the one and the other, as Levinas describes it.



It's my life

Yesterday I saw the film “As it is in heaven” for the second time. The first time was a year ago. The film touched me even more now than the first time, I think I find it the best film I have ever seen (together with “Lilya 4-ever”). A film that can change your life, in the same way as “The Alchemist” from Paolo Coelho can have such an effect.

The film is about people who follow their dreams. Daniel the famous dirigent always wanted – since he was a little child – to open the hearts of other people with music. His manager asks him at the end of his life if he succeeded in realizing his dreams. “Yes I think so”, says Daniel. “But why with particularly these people?”, asks the manager – some random people it seems, idiots, from a tiny village in the Swedish middle of nowhere, a place where “nothing ever happens”. Not with famous musicians with many years of musical education and training, just simple people from the local church choir. “Because I love them”, says Daniel. And then he realizes that he didn’t tell that yet to his beautiful girlfriend Lena, so he leaves the manager alone and runs to her.

And Gabriella who takes her life in her own hands and who no longer accepts that her husband beats her down every time. The weak victim, the little bird that asks: “please don’t hurt me”, becomes a proud strong woman who stands up for herself.

Below is Gabriella’s song – which Daniel wrote for her, and which she, when she has gathered all her courage, decides to sing for the whole village: From now on my life will be mine
I've got only a short time here on Earth
And my longing has led me here
Both what I missed and what I have

This is still the road I've chosen
My confidence far beyond words, has never left me
That confidence shows a little piece
Of the heaven I've never found

I want to feel that I really live
With all the time that I have
I shall live the way I want to
I want to feel that I’m really alive
To know that I'm good enough

I have never forgotten who I was
It was only sleeping for some time
Maybe I have had no freedom
Only the will to exist

I want to live happily, for I am me
To be able to be strong and free
See how night turns into day
I am here and my life is only mine

And the heaven that I thought that existed
I discovered that it is somewhere here
I want to feel that I really live

It is very beautiful and strong. It is very important, the confidence, and that she is good enough the way she is, and that she has never lost herself, only it has been sleeping and now it is waking up. It is important to feel that passion, the desire to really live, to live near all the borders and in the most remote corners of one's life, including all the pain and suffering and including all the love and the most intense happiness. Nobody can take that away from Gabriella. Her man can abuse her and hurt her tremendously. But it is her life, she can do what she wants. She is free to make her own choices. She is free to decide to leave her man. No matter how much the oppression, the suffering, the slavery, the fear; it will always be there: the freedom to make your own choices – even if there is very little that you can choose from – and to stay yourself / to stay true to yourself.

I had to think of an article by a philosopher – Cyril Lansink – in Volzin about the question: “What does it mean to be free?” Lansink says that freedom is usually defined in a negative way, it means there is no oppression, no force, no dependence on others, no restrictions of my freedom. Somebody can say: “I would like to have children, but on the other hand I am afraid that I will loose my freedom too much because of them”.

But freedom means more than this negative definition of not being restricted too much. It also means the positive choice to commit myself to something, to deliberately choose for something. I experience myself as free if I make a convinced choice to say yes or no to something I find on my way. While the negative freedom was aimed at independence, this positive freedom is aimed at a chosen dependence. The things that I want are determined / influenced by my personal background, because of my character I want certain things and other things not. But my personal will is not restricting me in that sense, on the contrary, it’s a necessary condition for me in order to be free, that there is something what I really what, what I can choose for deliberately. In that sense the choice to become a father or mother doesn’t have to mean that my freedom is being restricted. If I really want to have a child, if I long for giving love to my children, caring for them, then I use my freedom when I choose to try to realize my dream to have children. To have children doesn’t mean that I should give up my freedom, it means I am using my freedom of choice.

With this positive freedom I don’t need to maximize the amount of options I can choose between. When I listen to my heart and do as I will, it usually doesn’t mean that I am choosing between an infinite number of options. If I want to marry the person I love, I don’t have to choose between a 100 potential partners to decide to whom I will give my word. I don’t choose my own identity as a consumer in a grocery store, that I would choose between a 100 options for a product which is cheap and which fits with my mood and style at this moment. The way my identity has grown is a result of how my life developed. The choices I make open new ways for me in the future, but they also block roads away which I can no longer choose at a certain age. I can never undo the past. I can divorce from my husband but I cannot undo that I have been married to him.

If there is not much that I can choose between, it doesn’t mean that it is not important what I choose. If I can choose between two things and one is really bad, I have to make sure that that option won’t happen. If it is difficult to reach my dreams, I have to do all I can to get as close to it as possible. To think and feel all the time about what matters most to me, and to make my choices deliberately, is a tool to avoid that my life is living me, instead of that I live my life.
In order to be free, it is necessary that I can say: I want …
It should be me who says that, not somebody else, and it should be my will, not something I am forced into. I should be the master of my will. I should not decide to do something because other people (my parents or my peers) expect that from me, just because I want it myself. And I should not follow my urges automatically, I should be able to steer, to judge my own will. If I am addicted I follow my will (to use drugs), but I am not free. The drugs are not what I really want.

At high school I wrote an essay about the free will for my philosophy lessons. I referred then to the writer Tonke Dragt, who describes a human being as a driver of a trolleybus. The bus is connected to a cord which restricts the driver in his choices of which way he will choose. He cannot drive into a road where there is no cord, so there are many roads that he cannot drive in. But he does still have the steering-wheel in his hands, and sometimes the cords split and then he can choose which way he wants to go. It is important to make these choices deliberately, to remember that the trolleybus is not driving you and just taking you anywhere, but that you are driving the bus yourself. If you look for the splitting points and if you know where you want to go and always go in that direction, you will be free and happy, even if there are very little splitting points on your route and even if you know that you can never reach the place where you really want to be. As long as you are heading in the right direction and as long as you can control the steering.

And somehow I think that there are some things that your heart cannot really long for. The people who want to have a good career, to earn a lot of money, to gain a lot of power, to pretend to be very important, to have a high status, to have many people kneeling down for them, can that really be what their hearts long for mostly?

Especially if these people are all alone, no family, no friends, if others are only interested in them because of their own interests, because these people can help them further in society, and so on. Would it be possible for my heart or anybody else’s heart to be completely happy and healed and full, only because of money, status and power? I think my heart needs love to be happy. My heart longs to help other people, my heart wants to do something good for the world. My heart wants me to spend a lot of time with friends and family, to support each other and to be happy together. If my heart would only be confronted with status and power I would feel very cold inside.

The priest in the film is only looking for power and authority. He plays nasty games to get rid of Daniel because he sees Daniel as a threat to his power and authority. But because of his mean tricks, he looses everything that really mattered to him: he looses his wife and he looses the whole village, his church and everything. That would not have been necessary. If he realized how important his wife was for him, how much he loved her, if he had been good to her, he would not have lost her. And if he had joined Daniel and the village with the choir repetitions, he would have been with them still, they certainly wouldn’t refuse him. But it didn’t make sense to try to pull the village away from Daniel, because they loved him.

It’s very important that we never forget our hearts, that we don’t let them become cold but always listen to what the heart is saying, its desires, what it is longing for. If I follow my heart I can conquer the most difficult obstacles. The circumstances can be terribly difficult, it can be totally impossible to achieve what my heart longs for, but that burning fire of desire in my heart will keep me warm and will keep me moving, and one day, sooner or later, I will arrive there where I wanted to go.



God is good

Today I had a very interesting msn chat with my friend Khalid. It's a very philosophical and very universal perspective on religion and I think it's one of the highest possible levels of tolerance both towards other religions than our own and towards atheism. It's also the highest level of agnosticism that a believer can accept, I think.

Khalid: Can you prove that a religion is 100% right or wrong?

Esther: No of course not

Khalid: So better to stay on the safe side, if my religion is right then i am safe, if my religion is fake, at least i didn't say bad things about the right one

Esther: I can know what a good God considers as good and what as evil. A good God will find it more important that I am a good person, that I don't harm innocent people, that I help people who need help, that I don't spread hate, that I don't dehumanize people, even if I follow the wrong religion with a non-existing god.

Khalid: That is true. And God is the best.

At the same time, if you believe that there is no God then better not say anything bad about him, because if He exist, then you will not only be sorry for not believing in him, but also you will have to face the fact that you did speak ill of his Hollyness.


And at Orkut Asiya posted a beautiful reply:

THATS what I believe in!
I'm not sure of God's existence but as long as I'm trying to be AS GOOD AS I can! Then there's NO HARM!
I'm doing my best at being good and if there' s a heaven and hell... and I'm sent to hell, although I thought i was doing the right thing...
I won't regret cuz I tried my best!

And another beautiful reaction at Orkut:

Exactly, that's the basis of any religion.
God was given form by us, so many of them, so many forms. The masses cannot enlighten themselves on this obscure concept.
In india we have idol worship. Everything is man made, it's suited for the masses... but it cannot bring them to oneness with god. Liberation needs a deeper understanding.
Vedas promoted shiva and Vishnu.
Chirst promoted Christianity.
Mohamed promoted Islam.
God is always good. Coz God is compassion and love .


And some lyrics about good things:

Good Things
Lucky Dube

There will be a time in your life
When you' ll need me the most
But I won' t be there
There will be a time in your life
When you won' t need me at all
I won' t be there
But while I' ve got the chance
I' m gonna tell you what I know
About this world we' re living in
It may seem so beautiful
From where you are
It may look so innocent
In your eyes
But let me tell you
It' s not a bed of roses

I can sit here and teach you
Every trick in the book
But at the end of the day
It is your life

Good things come to those
Who got out and made them happen
They don' t come to those who wait

You don' t have to worry
The future is in your hands

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