5.13.2010

The Others

Ah. I've got it now.

Wrangler's recent comments have me thinking. Thinking through my experience.

What/who do you think of when I say "other?" Honestly. Who is "other" to you?

One way to answer that is to say, "Well, we know who the others are: they're minorities. Black people. Gay people. People from 'third world' countries."

But another way to answer that is to think structurally: what does the other make us feel like, usually? Answer: uncomfortable. Like we'd rather be out of their presence.

Who does that for you?

For me, these days, the "other" (conceived that way) is the upstanding Southern Baptist, who tucks his shirt in and shaves every morning. Who speaks with clarity and brightness. Who greets you with a smile. Who was actually a virgin until he was married.

Now, again: who is the other? Who is the other if you feel much more comfortable around a gay foreigner who happens to be wearing a big-bird costume than you do around a Southern Baptist preacher? And if the views of big-bird and the preacher conflict, which other do we defer to first? Whose political perspective is more important? Let's not pretend that Southern Baptism has a more pervasive cultural influence these days than homosexuality. When was the last time you saw anything but a Sunday-morning sermon that even hinted of Southern Baptist culture? But have you seen MTV? Or a sitcom? Or the internet?

We talk in abstractions about "the other," but I'm not sure we're thinking about the same things.

9 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Every sentient being (and Being itself--moreover the possibility of beyond Being) is other.

And, yes, otherness does make every self uncomfortable. This discomfort occurs (I would argue) both within consciousness (the I, Emerson's Eye) and below it--or, phenomeonologically specific--before it.

Someone asked me this morning why I was drawn particularly to Levinas. My response was because I was interested in an approach to ethics that wasn't routed through knowledge. I saw ethics as the limitations of knowledge. Ethics can only begin when we know nothing. And Levinas articulates the self as a knowledge that can only occur after a pre-ontological relation to something other than itself.

Encountering an other, then, is always potentially disruptive to the self.

Levinas distrusts [Platonic-Aristotelian] rhetoric for its basis in persuasion--the attempt to bring the other to the self. I distrust this rhetoric too.

I am quite interested in the agonism you describe in this comment--and the fact that there is no naturally "more important" culture.

Levinas covers this too--the political--albeit in the margins of his theory. There is always violence because there is never only two (myself and other). If there were only two, then I would give myself completely. But there is never only two--there is always at least three. Myself, the other, and the neighbor. The other's other. And, thus, I must always decide. Such a violence, however, can be mitigated (never dissipated) by attending to responsibility (in Levinas's peculiar sense of "the ability to respond"). In choosing between the other and the other's other, I must attempt to make the choice that imposes the least.

Always fight against an other's attempt to suppress an other's choices.

Now, I ask, which others (in your original sense) tend to be more interested in controlling the actions of others?

If I write too much here, it is because I am sensitive to the arguments that 1) postmodern theory isn't caught up in politics and 2) that rhetoric is only about persuasion/coercion.

Casey said...

Dammit. I just wrote a really awesome comment and it got lost in "the internet."

I'll try again later.

bowtu

Casey said...

Part of what I was thinking:

You say that no culture is "more important" than any other culture. I disagree here. I actually think we know more or less what we desire. Utopia is always some variation on "all the believers were one in heart and mind, and none of them claimed anything was their own, but they shared with each other according to need" (paraphrasing from Acts 4).

Then the only interesting question is "political." I was reading a sermon by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) yesterday on this topic. What he says:

'How came they to act thus, to have all things in common, seeing we do not read of any positive command to do this?" I answer, There needed no outward command: The command was written on their hearts. It naturally and necessarily resulted from the degree of love which they enjoyed. Observe! "They were of one heart, and of one soul:" And not so much as one (so the words run) said, (they could not, while their hearts so overflowed with love) "that any of the things which he possessed was his own." And wheresoever the same cause shall prevail, the same effect will naturally follow.'

But it seems like most people thinking about either ethics or politics want to be prescriptive, right? So in the final analysis, we sort of agree I guess? Libertarianism. Don't try to control the other. [Note: do we have a transcendentally true principle of political philosophy here: live and let live?]

But that wasn't my question. I agree with the most "progressive" position on gay rights. But I'm asking whether we the people have a right to know a supreme court nominee's sexuality.

fenhopper said...

"But I'm asking whether we the people have a right to know a supreme court nominee's sexuality."

no one has the right to demand information about an individual. do we have the power to act differently depending on whether or not we get that information? of course.

Casey said...

Fen: of public officials, I sort of disagree. In a democracy, at least, the idea of "demanding information about individuals" is at least a time honored tradition, isn't it?

(Altho--maybe appointed positions should be different than elected positions?)

fenhopper said...

let me reword that.

everyone has a right to demand. but that doesn't mean you have a right to the information.

everyone has a right to file a lawsuit. that doesn't mean you're going to win.

Casey said...

The Arizona police have the right to demand information.

fenhopper said...

yeah. and that doesn't mean they'll get it. so the law describes the consequences of your refusal to give it. and the law also draws a line regarding what information is relevant and what information will not lead to certain consequences if withheld.

i guess i'm getting kinda picky about what the "right" to information means. the question of relevance is a better one. more interesting.

Casey said...

I heard a radio commercial the other day that said, "Blah blah blah you have the right to consolidate debt through a government program for blah blah blah..."

And I'm worried that this is how "rights" are going to look in the future. So the question of rights is always relevant -- but yeah, maybe not as interesting here.