Many of the contemporary political developments are based on a phenomenon that in continental philosophy is called ‘the problem of the Other‘. Emmanuel Levinas described this somewhat as follows: There is something outside of my own world, something which appears to me and which I can no longer ignore, I have to do something with it. It is other, it is not-I.
(Lees dit artikel in het Nederlands.)
This problem of the Other can be found in issues like immigration, discrimination based on race or gender, and in European discussions about the legitimacy of the EU and Brexit. It seems there are two groups of people, each approaching this problem from their own point of view and trying to use it to further their own agenda. Both approaches are problematic and can lead to dangerous populism. In the end, the solution of this problem of the Other might be a third approach, one that accepts the paradox that this problem leads to.
The Other: Version A – ‘They’
Group A focuses on the difference that the Other poses, and takes this difference as the source of problems that occur. The Other is other based on their religion, nationality, skin color, gender or political preference. The distance between the I’s and the non-I’s forms the basis of identity and self-worth of their own group. Which is why group A has such a powerful pull. To want to confirm a identity, wanting to belong to a group and looking foremost to external origin of problems is understandable and some would say even human. They are easy constructive sources of human motivation that are not easily exchanged for others.
But when this approach is systematically furthered, as is exhaustively written about by for instance Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben, this path will lead to the concentration camps, where the Other is reduced to a problem maker and deemed inhuman, and therefore easily dismissed and removed.
The Other: version B – ‘Us’
Group B on the other hand, looks for ways to bridge the gap between the I and the non-I, in such a way that the difference seems to disappear. Artist Banksky illustrated this kind of statement recently:
Group B feels responsible for the problems of the Other which are often explained by being caused by bad luck of being born in the ‘wrong’ place, the injustice of simply being different without having chosen that path. Group B claims we are all one human family, and we’re all equal and we have to help every last one of us. The powerful message of this idea lies in relating to our feelings of empathy, of bridging the distance towards the other by sharing their feelings.
But when this approach is systematically furthered, as is described in dystopian literature such as ‘Anthem’ by Ayn Rand and ‘We’ by Yevgeni Zamyatin, then the personal experience of individual people as part of their identity is being devalued. This can lead to a populism of the ‘we’, where the group is more powerful than an opinion of a minority.
Embracing the paradox
Both groups present an important aspect, an important response to this troubling question of the Other. One focuses on the difference between the I and the non-I and the other tries to overcome this difference – both with the same goal of approaching ‘the good’, each by standing for an important human value. It would be difficult when we would have to decide which one is more important or valuable: patriotism of love for one’s self and own’s own group, or the connection with humanity as a whole. But both groups present themselves as exclusive, that one cannot take both sides. And this leads to a paradox – a situation in which two seemingly true stands exclude each other.
In his book The Communist Postscript, Boris Groys explains that a fundamental part of communism is the embracing of this type of paradox. Fully aware of both sides that each forms an important part of the whole, it will always choose for the whole, and never for one part of the truth presented by reality. As Socrates showed by exposing sophists, formulating one single solution for the whole is always a denial and a concealment of this underlying paradox – that the opposite of one’s claim is not an untruth, but simply another truth. In this way we can see for instance that the solution of the multicultural society has bridged the gap between cultural backgrounds, but because of it the idea of a losing of the value of one’s own culture emerged and could grow into nationalistic tendencies, through which the difference with the other has grown again. Both responses are one-sided and problematic because of this one-sidedness. But how then can we embrace both sides of the coin that is human life?
When we follow in Socrates’ footstep, as Groys argues us to do, philosophers would have to continue to point out inconsistencies to any point of view. Philosophers could point out the need for compassion instead of empathy, as empathy doesn’t respect the individuality of the other, as moral psychologist Paul Bloom explains in this article and in his book Against Empathy. And we can show there are other sources of identity which are not based on race or xenophobia, as we could learn from the work of Charles Taylor, most notably in this regard his book Sources of the Self.
An example of difference: women
Is there a way to deal with people who have been defined through their being-different? Perhaps we could take a look at one example in this regard: women. In the history of thought, the woman is almost continuously depicted as an unreasonable creature. From Aristotle to Schopenhauer, from Freud to Derrida – the woman is something incomprehensible and intangible. She is approached from the lack of something, a lack compared to the male – she lacks reason, a penis, a public position. Genevieve Lloyd shows in her book The Man of Reason how this can be traced back to the Pythagorean difference where women was the vague and unclear, whereas the man was superior, reasonable and clear. (See also my talk recently published on youtube on this very topic.)
During the last hundred years, many has changed for women in the social domain in the West. Much research continues to be done into the role of women – women can now study, can vote, can have jobs even when married. But this underlying difference is hardly touched upon. A difference that still persists, the difference between the thinking male norm and emotional women continues at the very least in media, literature and the public domain. During the worldwide #womensmarch on January 22, 2017, the slogans used were telling in this regard: ‘Fight like a girl’ and ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ – all showing how the difference continues to exist.
The problem is that one still thinks by means of difference, identity is based on the difference. A definition, an identity, should not be formulated and thought based on what it is not. Which is not the same as saying the difference should be denied or negated, but it is not saying that the defining of woman should be based on difference. Difference has been an important part, historically, etymologically. Abolishing this source of identity would dismiss this source of identity. But at the same time, continuing to define woman based on difference from the male, means that she will not be able to take as complete a role in the domains from which she has been banned – politics, philosophy, science, the work force.
The Alternative of Matrixial Thinking
So, is there a way to accept the paradox of the other and the woman, which can accept being different from the norm and being the non-I, while also being part of the norm and the I? Boris Groys sees the solution in communism, where both excluding alternatives are taken on by the middle, taking both as true and taking up both claims. This Stalin-like solution is however danger for other reasons. Choosing the middle – as we know from Aristotle – is dangerous as it creates a situation in which both alternatives are once more denied.
What about a compromise, something the Dutch are proud of – the poldermodel based on the idea that everyone gives in a bit and all end up happy. But how is that different form choosing a middle road where the two paradoxical truths are once more put aside to make room for an all-encompassing singel truth. The same is happening when we look for a transcendental experience, where the two are transcended by something higher, something more fundamental.
No, all these solutions stay locked in a dichotomy of the one versus the other, or the whole above the part. An alternative solution would be the letting go of the I and the non-I as sources of identity, where the borders are transgressed and linking with each other, but not omitted. In her book The Matrixial Borderspace, Bracha Ettinger outlines this approach. She accepts both the I as the non-I as parts of a matrix – the Latin word for womb. In a matrix new processes and identities arise because borders are broken as they are confirmed. The paradox of the I and the non-I becomes the source of new life that is more than its parts, and also less. Maybe this matrixial thinking isn’t the type of acceptance of paradox that Boris Groys was looking for in his work on communism. But perhaps it can give us a glimpse of a solution for the problem of the other, the us-vs-them, and the rejection of difference as a source of identity wherewith the world is faced.
The future will tell.
This article is also available in Dutch.