Kindness strikes a chord of humanity in the Other

For years I had a great writer on my bookshelf and I wasn't aware of it, I didn't read his books ("Ebbenhout" (The shadow of the sun) is on my shelf). With the book "The Other", Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote a book that I more or less wanted to write myself as a dissertation. He applies Levinas' theory of the encounter with the Other to the situation in which the other is a stranger. I didn't know that it was done before: to apply the philosophy of Levinas to intercultural contact. I ordered the book on the internet. In the mean time I found this article on the internet: "Encountering the Other: The Challenge for the 21st Century". I would like to summarize it here and to comment on it.

The central question in the article is: How should we act toward Others? In prehistoric times people lived with their own tribe only, many people never met any other tribes. Later people started to travel and trade with others.

"The remains of marketplaces, of ports, of places where there were agoras and sanctuaries, of where the seats of old universities and academies are still visible, and of where there remain vestiges of such trade routes as the Silk Road, the Amber Route and the Trans-Saharan caravan route, these are proofs of cooperation. All of these were places where people met to exchange thoughts, ideas and merchandise, and where they traded and did business, concluded covenants and alliances, and discovered shared goals and values. “The Other” stopped being a synonym of foreignness and hostility, danger and mortal evil. People discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other, and they believed in this and lived confidently."

Kapuschinski says that there are three ways to deal with the Other: war, isolation or to enter into a dialogue. In the case of a war, the encounter with the Other usually ends tragically, in a catastrophe of blood and death. Isolation / building walls around you is not good either. It can result in Apartheid. "In simple terms, proponents of this view proclaim that everyone is free to live as he chooses, as long as it’s as far away from me as possible, if he isn’t part of my race, religion or culture. If that were all!
In reality, we are looking at a doctrine of the structural inequality of the human race. The myths of many tribes and peoples include the conviction that only we are human—the members of our clan, our community—while others, all others, are subhuman or aren’t human at all. Apartheid was and still is a doctrine of hatred, contempt and revulsion for the Other, the foreigner."

To enter into a dialogue with the other is a much more positive form of encounter. It seems the present Dutch multicultural society has become complicated, and we have to develop new skills to be able to start an intercultural dialogue. The issues that I wrote about on this blog lately - the attacks and accusations towards Tariq Ramadan, and the proposal to fire an army imam, are not exactly an example of a successful intercultural dialogue. They lead to increased polarisation, separation, frustration, isolation. We have to accept that there are foreign cultures in the Dutch society, we have to learn how to live together with different cultures, we have to find ways to meet each other, to enter in an open respectful dialogue. If we can overcome fear by getting to know each other, that will work much better than to let fear result in agression, discrimination and isolation.

It's very beautiful how Kapuscinski promotes hospitality and kindness:
"How different was the image of the Other in the epoch of anthropomorphic beliefs, the belief that the gods could assume human form and act like people. Back then you could never tell whether the approaching wanderer, traveler or newcomer was a person or a god in human guise. That uncertainty, that fascinating ambivalence, was one of the roots of the culture of hospitality that mandated showing all kindness to the newcomer, that ultimately unknowable being.
Doors and gates are not only for closing against the Other—they can also open for him and welcome him inside. Thanks to such an interpretation, the world we inhabit starts being not only richer and more diverse, but also kinder to us, a world in which we ourselves will want to encounter the Other."

Maybe this sounds too optimistic, too idealistic. But I don't think it's irrealistic as a basic attitude. A bit like the Tit for Tat strategy. You start with an attitude of hospitality and kindness, respect, normal behavior towards the Other / stranger as an equal human being. Then when a stranger turns out to be a criminal then you don't continue to be hospitable and kind but then you lock him / her up in prison.

Then he explains the philosophy of Levinas in relation to intercultural contact:
"Emmanuel Levinas calls the encounter with the Other an “event,” or even a “fundamental event,” the most important experience, reaching to the farthest horizons. Levinas, as we know, was one of the philosophers of dialogue, along with Martin Buber, Ferdinand Ebner and Gabriel Marcel (a group that later came to include Jozef Tischner), who developed the idea of the Other as a unique and unrepeatable entity, in more or less direct opposition to two phenomena that arose in the 20th century: the birth of the masses that abolished the separateness of the individual, and the expansion of destructive totalitarian ideologies.
These philosophers attempted to salvage what they regarded as the paramount value, the human individual—me, you, the Other, the Others—from being obliterated by the actions of the masses and of totalitarianism (which is why these philosophers promoted the concept of “the Other” to emphasize the differences between one individual and another, the differences of non-interchangeable and irreplaceable characteristics).
This was an incredibly important movement that rescued and elevated the human being, a movement that rescued and elevated the Other, with whom, as Levinas suggested, one must not only stand face to face and conduct a dialogue, but for whom one must “take responsibility.” In terms of relations with the Other and Others, the philosophers of dialogue rejected war because it led to annihilation; they criticized the attitudes of indifference or building walls; instead, they proclaimed the need—or even the ethical obligation—for closeness, openness and kindness."

It's a radical philosophy of infinite responsibility for the other, but it works well in practice I think, as a guide for our actions.

"Let us point out that the concept of the Other is usually defined from the white man’s—the European’s—point of view. But today, when I walk through a village in the mountains of Ethiopia, a crowd of children runs after me, pointing at me in merriment and calling out: “Ferenchi! Ferenchi!”—which means “foreigner, other.” This is an example of the dismantling of the hierarchy of the world and its cultures. Others are indeed Others, but for those Others, I am the one who is Other. In this sense, we’re all in the same boat. All of us inhabitants of our planet are Other for Others—Me for Them, and Them for Me."

Kapuscinski travelled a lot around the world. During 40 years he regularly went to Africa. It's good to see how this broadened his mind. I think it's important to get to know other perspectives by living in a different country, inside a local community, working together with people from a different cultural background. Kapuscinski describes in this respect the experiences of the antropologist Malinowski.

"Malinowski himself, as if to spite all colonial customs, pitched his tent in the middle of a local village and lived among the local people. What he experienced turned out to be no easy experience. In his A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, he continually mentions problems, bad moods, despair and depression. You pay a high price for breaking free of your culture. That is why it is so important to have your own distinct identity, and a sense of your own strength, worth and maturity. Only then can you confidently face a different culture. Otherwise, you will withdraw into your own hiding place and timorously cut yourself off from others.
All the more so because the Other is a mirror into which you peer, or in which you are observed, a mirror that unmasks and denudes, which we would prefer to avoid."

The issue of the need to define your own identity is something that interests me a lot. For sure we are not limited to the identity of the culture that we grew up with. We can learn about other cultures and adapt certain aspects. An identity consists of many aspects and it's not fixed, it's constantly changing. It's not necessary to determine which parts are more fundamental than others. Tariq Ramadan explained it nicely, that it's crazy to ask somebody if he is more Muslim, Moroccan or European. You can be all three of them without giving a fundamental priority. Like that you don't ask: are you a poet or a vegetarian? Writing poems is not very relevant for the choice of eating chicken or not. You can be both at the same time and it can be both important to you. And many other aspects are part of your identity. Defining your identity is needed to have something to hold on to / refer to in contact with other cultures. But a very strong identity can be arrogant or racist, if you consider yourself as special and better than others.

An important remark is also that Malinowski said:
"There is no such thing as a higher or a lower culture—there are only different cultures, with varying ways of meeting the needs and expectations of their participants. A different person, of a different race and culture, is nevertheless a person whose behavior, like ours, is characterized by dignity, respect for acknowledged values and respect for tradition and customs."

This doesn't mean total cultural relativism. You can still criticize certain aspects of a culture, like you can do that of your own culture. It just means that people from other cultures should be treated with an equal level of respect.

The last step in the article is towards globalisation, a new planetary society:

"While Malinowski began his work at the moment of the birth of the masses, we are living today in the period of transition from that mass society to a new, planetary society. Many factors lie behind this—the electronics revolution, the unprecedented development of all forms of communication, the great advances in transport and movement, and also, in connection with this, the transformation at work in the consciousness of the youngest generation and in culture broadly conceived.

How will this alter the relations between us, the people of one culture, and the people of some other culture, or of Other cultures? How will this influence the I-Other relationship within my culture and beyond it? It is very difficult to give an unequivocal final answer, since the process is ongoing and we ourselves, with no chance for the distance that fosters reflection, are immersed in it.
Levinas considered the I-Other relation within the bounds of a single, racially and historically homogeneous civilization. Malinowski studied the Melanesian tribes at a time when they were still in their primal state, not yet violated by the influence of Western technology, organization and markets. Today, this is ever less frequently possible. Cultures are becoming increasingly hybridized and heterogeneous.
We say today that the world has become multiethnic and multicultural not because there are more of these communities and cultures than before, but rather because they are speaking out more loudly, with increasing self-sufficiency and forcefulness, demanding acceptance, recognition and a place at the round table of nations. Today, our planet, inhabited for centuries by a narrow group of free people and broad throngs of the enslaved, is filled with an increasing number of nations and societies that have a growing sense of their own separate value and significance. This process is often occurring amidst enormous difficulties, conflicts, dramas and losses.

We may be moving toward a world so entirely new and changed that our previous historical experience will prove to be insufficient to grasp and move around in it. In any case, the world that we are entering is the Planet of Great Opportunities. Yet these are not unconditional opportunities, but rather opportunities open only to those who take their tasks seriously and thus prove that they take themselves seriously. This is a world that potentially has a lot to offer, but that also demands a lot, and in which taking easy shortcuts is often the road to nowhere.

We will constantly be encountering the new Other, who will slowly emerge from the chaos and tumult of the present. It is possible that this new Other will arise from the meeting of two contradictory currents that shape the culture of the contemporary world—the current of the globalization of our reality and the current of the conservation of our diversity, our differences, our uniqueness. The Other may be the offspring and the heir of these two currents.
We should seek dialogue and understanding with the new Other. The experience of spending years among remote Others has taught me that kindness toward another being is the only attitude that can strike a chord of humanity in the Other."

This is a very important point I think. I experienced it myself in Senegal. The cultural differences can easily lead to misunderstandings and frustration. I may be very convinced of my being right. But if I want to have good contact with my Senegalese colleagues, I have to be patient, calm, flexible, friendly, respectful. That works much better than to start shouting out of anger and indignation. To recognize the humanity in the Other is an important condition for ethical behaviour. Once you recognize that the Other is human, it becomes much more difficult to kill him (either physically or psychologically) as Levinas says.

Kapuscinski is asking some interesting questions which I could maybe try to answer in a dissertation. He wrote this article in 2002. The world is changing fast. There are many analysises to make of what is happening nowadays, what will be the result and what can we do to make improvements.

"Who will this new Other be? What will our encounter be like? What will we say? And in what language? Will we be able to listen to each other? To understand each other?
Will we both want to appeal, as Joseph Conrad put it, to what 'speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation—and to the subtle but invincible, conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.' "

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