25 בדצמבר 2015

Being different, Otherness and Racism

By Arie Kizel

A homosexual teenage boy and a lesbian teenage girl, who are still closeted and do not reveal their sexual identity to their friends. They do not reveal who they are because they are genuinely afraid. They do not fear being who they truly are; they fear being labeled 'different'.
Their fears are enhanced by the education system, its educational philosophy, its language, discourse and consistency. These teenage boys and girls are labeled 'different' at an early age in a variety of practices. Therefore, being different is so frightening, mainly for them, but also for their respective friends who amongst them have other 'different' boys and girls, 10 percent according to research.
I would like to open with a statement:  the construction of racism is based on the unwillingness to recognize Otherness. Furthermore –  the construction of racism is performed using a terminology that legitimizes 'being different', which is the basis for racism.
One of the characteristics of the classical approach in humanistic education is hierarchy. There is the 'more worthy' and the 'less worthy'. This hierarchy has several positive characteristics but also many negative characteristics which I wish to discuss. The same hierarchy places people, groups, narratives, beliefs and etc. above others.
It justifies the same hierarchical position alongside educational practices which are meant to establish a consciousness – which in my opinion becomes a conceptual prison for teachers and learners – according to which it is appropriate to perform the hierarchy.
The elevated, hence the appropriate in the Israeli society (but also in any society which does not critically examine the same hierarchy) is true. And what is true? True is the place we aim at. If you please – and in order to stay tuned to the education system -   the figure of the "desired adult" as one who "knows" – has the right knowledge (legitimate, if quoting Michael Apple) the moral knowledge, which will lead to success. He is also familiar with values – at least, he knows them in a declarative level (here comes the politically correct police who will closely and precisely monitor, misleading us to think that if we speak the right correctly think correctly – or at least we think politically correct, which off course is absolutely nonsense). Meaning, the one who knows, at the top of the hierarchy is the right person – he is worthy – he functions in a "normative" manner (therefore he is also the normal one).  He has a form and a persona and you can and should resemble him.
Hence, everything that is not in accordance with the same ideal – or form if we speak in Plato's terms – is different.  That which is different threatens the right ones. He threatens them every moment of every day because he places a magnifying mirror in front of them, even if he is a minority, even if he is negligible, he is a threat.
He threatens the internal cohesion, the corpus of beliefs, the opinions, the political actions, the forms – with regards to looks and behavior.
He is the Jew, if you please, in an all Christian world.
He is an Ethiopian girl or women.
And yes, he is the same gay or lesbian teenager.
From the moment the different takes form – he is given a name and an identity, and will never be more that what he was – from now on he is
"gay singer" or "gay actor". In our right, normalized consciousness which has become a trained direction and distance detector – the ability to recognize him, to label it and mainly to tell ourselves it is him/her, not us – are imprinted.
The act of labeling the different has taken diverse forms throughout human history, but is uniform in its essence and was aimed against this or that audience; yet with time it became unworthy.
The act of labeling and not the label itself is unworthy; the label remains the same.
In other words between the declarative discourse ("it is not nice to label") and the prevailing discourse in schools for example ("you must label because…") an incongruity, which needs to address by education, is formed.
This incongruity has become a distress, because it is not just morally or practically inappropriate – it also threatens the ability, for example of the Jewish man and women – to retain their position as victims that comes with the label – as part of the internal and coherent cohesion of the majority (for example the Jewish majority in its sovereign country). Namely, alas, the majority, the victim (which in my opinion has become victim-like) has stopped using the tools used against him.So, how can the majority rid itself from the danger of being labeled 'racist'? By labeling a new mark –  recognizing the 'difference' which in my view is the father of all sins.
The "different" which in my view is an existential misunderstanding and a moral misunderstanding paradoxically forms the moral basis.How so? The "different" is actually the one who is not like us, but we know who he is and we label him.
He is imprinted the moment he is revealed (and, therefore, he "hides" in closets) yet he is "accepted" (as civic teachers tend to say, and the civics curriculum – the principle of tolerance – we tolerate him and examine how much we can and want to accept him. By the way, Jewish students say nowadays – why tolerate, if it's possible not to tolerate, for example, the Arabs? Just something to think about).
The "different", hence, is labeled, labeled very well, he is known and familiar, he is painted with bright colors (sometimes he carries those colors from birth) and it has a "name" which comes up every time he is seen or mentioned.
He will never be able to erase the 'different' identity given to him by those who painted him and pointed at him. Being 'different' is a mark of disgrace, a label, and as any other label, it is racist. It is so racist that it even becomes natural. Being different, therefore, according to our students, yet also according to their teachers, is the natural way. 
So how do we solve the problem?  We formulate a humanistic action, seemingly moral, of acceptance. The one who labels accepts the "different". With great mercy, the one who labels makes a tolerant action which has seemingly positive foundations, and sometimes that acceptance is given a name "the principle of inclusion".The "let's include him" inherited the "let's tolerate him".
Anyways, the claim is a seemingly positive, but it has the key foundations of labeling, and therefore, in my opinion, is unworthy.
The 'difference' does not include and does not tolerate. It is carried out under the guise of "inclusion" and "tolerance". It lives under the same roof of "multiculturalism" and "pluralism", and of course "humanism", nonetheless, it is not inclusive or tolerant because it does not contain the key element of humanism – responsibility.
At this point, I would like to relate to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and to his text who is most important for our purpose, The Humanism of the Other which was published by Levinas in 1972.
This book challenges the question of mankind unity, and by doing so, it challenges the labeling as "different".
Levinas wishes to challenge that unity by putting otherness in the center of discussion. From now on, therefore, it is not the "same" but the "other" who is in the center.
Hence, the ethical concern for the other which overshadows the caring for the self. Levinas provides the possibility that thoughts can be focused on someone who is not me.
In that case, if we are not "right" or "different" – from now on we are others.
Each of us, has another 'otherness' which is no longer a threat to us, on the contrary, it enriches us. However, it also demands that we take the first step –recognizing the same "otherness".
The classical approach in the humanistic education, that is, in our schools as well as teacher training – does not acknowledge such recognition mainly because it seemingly separates and not integrates. Our bogus unity is supposed to bring us together.
However, according to Levinas, this point – otherness – is the meeting ground for human beings.
I am other than Mira, my wife, from Ido, Alon, and Ben, my three sons, therefore, I am not separate from them, I am actually linked to them. Linked how? By the bonds of responsibility.
AsLevinas stated: "Otherness which is endlessly binding, crosses time here with an impassable in-between… one for the other is like one guarding is a sibling, like the one responsible for the other. Between the one who I am and the other of whom I am responsible, there is a bottomless difference which is also the indifference of responsibility, the meanings of meaning." (pp. 30-31)
Levinas continues: "an indifference which in itself is proximity to the comrade and through it emerges nothing but a community –basis between one and the other, the unity of mankind, which is necessitated by the fraternity among human beings." (page 31)
The otherness Levinas refers to does not include the negativity which it is given by Israeli interpretation, the foreignness; because I do not fear the others, but rather responsible for them.
In my encounters with students, I try to invite them to Levinas discussion. The word "other", hence, "otherness", is so threatening to them. Why is it so? Because the "different" is more acceptable, more instilled, more normal. "Respecting those who are different" has become so fixated that the "other" is not legitimate.
So is the saying "the other is me", as expounded by the former Minister of Education in Israel, was misleading; beyond that its use was banal, lacking depth and shouldn’t I say (or maybe I should say) completely inaccurate.
The other is not me.
The other is him.
And his otherness according to Levinas – who was unfortunately misunderstood by some – is the one which includes the possibility of multiple responsibilities is not threatened, on the contrary, it gains the status of responsibility. Not responsibility like in the "personal responsibility project".  We are not speaking of giving in the sense of charity (Gemach) or the collection of packages for the needy during Passover or Rosh Hashanah. It is not helping an old woman across the road or even "secret charity" good and charitable as it may be. It is not giving in the sense of clearing the collective conscience in the form of a fundraising program in the poor prime-time of one commercial channel or another. It is a responsibility you are born into and, therefore, it defines your humanity.
Therefore, let's return to Levinas. He determines two important stages of responsibility as an expression of otherness:
In the first stage, the other is represented by the face. The revelation of the 'face' as a metaphor, but also as a reality, which represents the 'other'. And in Levinas words: "the other which reveals itself in the face, breaks in some way its own public essence, like an experience which opens the window through which the image has already emerged. Its presence is subject to shedding the form that brought to its revelation…. bare face is a simplicity lacking cultural decorations, forgiveness, detaching from their form in the very place they are formed. Faces enter our world from a completely different sphere." (page 69)
Through the face, the divinity within men reveals itself and the demand for responsibility towards him as a comrade is manifested. This divinity reveals itself in an encounter or a conflict with the face of the other is not an intelligent idea or an absolute and abstract principle, but a reference to the divine command "thou shalt not kill". It is not possible to transfer this responsibility to someone. In other words, if Cain brought forward the possibility of "am I my brother's keeper?" Levinas brings forward the possibility of'I am indeed my brother's keeper."
What does the face do in the first stage? According to Levinas: "the presence of the face marks, therefore, an undeniable order – an ordinance – one which stops the consciousness preparedness. The face cast doubt on consciousness. The skepticism is not the same as the consciousness which stems from this skepticism." (page 70)
In the second stage responsibility appears after it is summoned, as if it is 'born into'. In other words, there is no way to renounce responsibility towards the others. It is an indisputable obligation which is superior to the powers of 'being' (according to Heidegger and the like). In fact, there is no free choice of responsibility, it is rather imprinted in me, and there is no way to renounce it.
In Levinas' words: "to be 'I' signifies, therefore, being unable to renounce the responsibility, as if the entire creation lies on my shoulders. Nonetheless, the responsibility voids the 'I' from its imperialism and selfishness – even if it’s the selfishness of redemption. It does not make it a moment in the universal order. It confirms the unity of the 'I'. The unity of the 'I' is the fact that no one can answer in my place." (Page 71)
Levinas continues:  "to discover in the 'I' means creating an identity between the 'I' and ethics. The 'I' opposite the 'other' is responsible ad infinitum." (Page 71)
Hence, the other instigates the ethical process in the consciousness.
Therefore, the other has a role – an effective role – in formulating my responsibility. In his words: "there is no time to turn back, you cannot renounce responsibility, there is no inner hide out to which a man can withdraw, marching forward without thinking of himself […] And responsibility is definitely not blind and does not sell amnesia; it crosses all the motions of the thought from which it emerges, driven by extreme urgency, or rather merges with it." (page 71)
According to Levinas, in the center of humanism stands the subject who endlessly responsible to the other's faith. Meaning, that instead of labeling the other as different, as one who needs to be taken care of, one you should feel sorry for (because he was born gay or dark-skinned) – the subject is tied to the other in such an ethical bond. Hence, the other is not me – but the 'I' exists through the other, and the other's otherness is my responsibility.
I will pause here in order to clarify the total difference between being different or the different and otherness or the other.
While being different creates and represents the building of a fence, a barrier that even if it seemingly has acceptance or inclusion – or coexistence because it mainly labels the normal (heterosexual, male, white, and etc.). Otherness wishes to center the richness of the multiplicity and not on the normal collective opposite the handful of different.
Therefore, otherness is the expansion of humanity; it is recognizing the human diversity, and also by being humane and kinds, according to Levinas, when we are there for the others.
I would like to conclude and say that being different is the foundation of racism while otherness is the fight – or establishing the conditions for a fight – against racism.
If being difference is about the one who labels, about labeling, the mark of Cain (followed by an attempt to sweep it under the rug or clean it using inclusive or tolerant means) otherness does not argue for acceptance (because one should not accept but be responsible).
If being different clarifies who is more right and more worthy in an hierarchal scale – then otherness opposes the status of hierarchy, totality, universality and wishes to create a more modest particularity, chamber like if you please, in which there is no choice but a summon, an obligation of responsibility.
So, why do we prefer 'being different'? Why is the Israeli Education System so enamored with the moralism imprinted in 'accepting those who are different'?  Because the definition of different is what holds together like glue, all those remaining – which relate to my national identity, my gender identity, my tribal identity. It enables the existence of a home, of an identity separate from those who are 'different'. In the core of the Israeli perspective which in my view sometimes lacks humanity, stands the attempt to differentiate by labeling the 'different' as threatening, as an enemy, as one who needs to be seemingly "tolerated", "respected", but without removing his "difference" because it is what enables the existence of the collective and the definition of our struggle with those who are different, and hence, threatening.
Therefore, Israelism, as it is suggested to us today by several entities, is one who will play with words and will prefer a bogus cohesiveness. Within this cohesiveness, for several years, and especially during the past few years, arises the otherness of the others even within the Jewish community – be  they Ashkenazi or Sephardi, be they rich or poor, orthodox, traditionalists (if they are allowed to be) or secular. Meaning, every attempt to include is bound to fail; it will bring to the surface, in this way or another, the relevance of the "other" and of course, its otherness.
Thus, the challenge at hand today – and once more I would like to convey my gratitude for designating a time and place for such discussion – is not being afraid.  Not fearing my own "otherness" and hence not fearing the other's otherness; but to see it as something which will  enable my humanity and mainly what was offered for us by Levinas – responsibility as a driving force, that  propels solidarity and the prevention of violence, and, of course, preventing racism.   

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