Put myself in your shoes
I found especially professor Ramadan’s speech very good, he said some things which Levinas could have said as well, and then applied to intercultural contact, so very much related to the topic of my dissertation.
While having Levinas’ ideas of contact with the other in mind, and Ramadan’s ideas of taking a critical distance and decentering your self, I would like to list some points which are in my opinion very important tools to improve intercultural contact:
- We should try to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, to empathize with the other. In Dutch we say “live in” the other (je inleven in de ander), and that is exactly what I mean, like in the film “Being John Malkovich”, as if you are looking through his eyes. Of course this isn’t possible in reality, but you should try to come as close to it as possible. Ramadan said that there is no clash of civilizations, there is just a clash of perceptions. We all have our subjective perspectives, our coloured glasses, while we think that what we see is the absolute truth, a universal perspective. If we want our perspectives to stop clashing with each other, it means I have to understand the perspective of the other, from within, the other should explain to me how he looks at the world, I should try to leave my own position temporary and try to really understand the other.
- We should take a critical distance from ourselves, as if we are looking over our own shoulder. To live together with different cultures is never easy (said Ramadan) it’s much easier to live with people who are all the same. But it’s a fact of life that our societies are culturally diverse. So misunderstandings can occur anytime, people offend each other without knowing it, people make jokes that you don’t find funny at all. We have to find a way to make something of it, to live together in a good way. We should reflect on what is happening, our own culture and the culture of the other. Don’t let your emotions take the overhand, don’t react in blind anger, don’t think immediately that you are right and the other is wrong, try to be more self-critical and open-minded. Ask the other for an explanation: why did you do that, how do you look at this situation? By giving explanations to each other, by being patient and to really listen to the other, misunderstandings can be taken away.
Levinas also finds it very important that there is a clear distance between the one and the other. I should never think that the other is the same as me, that the other is part of me. We don’t have the same consciousness, we don’t have the same perspectives, we are both unique individuals who look at the world in a different way. I should always keep in mind that the other person has got his own perspective, otherwise I might start to think and talk for him, and then I treat him as an object. To give an example: one of the speakers in Rotterdam said to Ramadan: “You are a Muslim so I suppose you are against Western individualism and modernism.” Ramadan said: “I am European, modern and Muslim. I have no problem with that, what about you, do you have a problem with me?” And he also said (when someone said he had heard Ramadan is a wolf in sheep clothes): “If you want to know how I think, read what I write and hear what I say, don’t listen to what others say about me.” That’s what it’s all about, listen to what the real other is saying, not to the prejudices and stereotypes of the other that you have invented in your own mind.
- And in relation to what I just said: Don’t demonize the other. The other is a human being, just like you, and should be respected and treated as an equal human being. When cultures or perceptions collide, it can happen that you are irritated by the “strange” behavior of the other, or that it frightens you. You turn your back to him to avoid the irritation, or you get angry and demand that he stops behaving like that. But it won’t change, every now and then it happens that conflicts arise between people with different backgrounds. Maybe you will slowly start to hate a certain group, e.g. Muslims. When hate is taking over your mind, you might become blind, emotional irrational. You start to think in black-and-white, us versus them, the other becomes a terrible enemy, a dangerous monster that should be killed. The hate blows everything out of proportions. When you no longer consider the other as an equal human being, if you just want to fight the other, to kill this terrible monster, then a constructive dialogue, building bridges together, to really listen to each other, to show empathy, to find a solution together for a conflict; all of that is no longer possible. The problem is the same as at the second point: if you invent an image of the other in your head and you no longer look at or listen to the real other, you dehumanize the other, you treat him as an object. This is what happens with racism, if you consider a race or group as inferior, you have dehumanized these people.
So we should stop the hate from entering our minds. We should stay calm, think well, don’t become emotionally, don’t exaggerate. Don’t break the contact with the other, keep the dialogue going, try to look for a common solution, as a shared responsibility. We should take our responsibility to meet the other with open arms.
Ramadan also says that the problem of insults and freedom of speech is not really a legal one, but merely a psychological one. Censorship means that people are deprived of their right to speak. But we also have a duty to use this right in a reasonable way, while taking sensitivities into account. For our friends and family it’s natural to show empathy and respect, to be concerned about their feelings. But towards strangers there should be such an attitude as well.
With the debate in Amsterdam, I was thinking about how this process of dehumanization of the other doesn’t happen only among racists, Islam-haters, anti-Semites etc., but it can happen also on the side of resistance against racism as well. According to “Together against Racism”, we should say the things as they are (“het beestje bij de naam noemen”), so they said that Islamophobia is a new form of racism, and they repeatedly called Wilders a racist. Somebody from the audience warned that we should not blow this Wilders out of proportions. He likes to think of himself that he is very important, but we should not believe that ourselves, and it is wrong to see him as the source of all evil, it is better to refer to his party than just to him as a superstar / super enemy. To call Wilders a racist means to put a label on his head. When can we define some person as a racist? How many times should a person say something racist before he can be considered as that? Why do we want to label people like that, as racist or fundamentalist or barbarian? I agree with “Together against Racism” that we should not ignore the word racism, we should investigate it, name it and protest against it. If you avoid using the word racism it seems as if the problem doesn’t exist. But we should be careful not to be so angry with Wilders that we start to hate him and demonize him. As if he is an incredible big monster that we should fight against. He doesn’t deserve that honour of being considered as tremendously big and dangerous. It is not the person who is the problem, his ideas and behaviour are the problem. We should not be blinded by hate and become emotional, we should keep our minds alert and think of a rational strategy against racism and towards a common ground.