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.