The Other, ourselves

Terra Incognita
Issue 12
A Publication of Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem, Israel


November 24th, 2007

The Other, ourselves: The paradigm of the ‘other’ has led to us knowing less about our own culture and heritage and more about those of the ‘other’. This means that increasingly our own heritage is foreign to us and therefore we are, in fact, the other to ourselves.

The temptation to steal: A recent article claimed that people tempt others to steal by their very presence or by leaving valuables around. However the real temptation to steal comes from lack of communal solidarity and increased diversity in urban areas.

Offense: The very concept of being ‘offended’ is one that is unique to modern society. Never before in human history did people get ‘offended’ when they heard one person insult another group of people who were not their own.

From Akbar’s India to Muslim Spain to the Ottoman empire and Omar’s Jerusalem: a history of tolerance: Tolerance is a myth of history and any attempt to project backwards our own concept of tolerance is fraught with deception, self-delusion and lies.

The Other, ourselves
November 24th, 2007
Seth J. Frantzman

In all the endless discussions of the ‘other’ from academia to portrayals on television we have been treated to a continuous beating over the head regarding our treatment and perception of the other. The other, as a paradigm, was designed to understand the way in which majorities view minorities. It took as its classic example the treatment and perception of Jews in European history. They were, so we are told, the classic other, the people that ‘good Christians’ always defined themselves against for centuries. We are also warned that stereotyping the other is not merely an innocent and natural fact of life, but also leads to things like the Holocaust and the Inquisition.

Even if we ignore the central problem with the concept of the other, namely that it does not recognize the fact that minorities also view majorities as an ‘other’ and that within the majority society there are also many ‘others’.

However the main flaw in this paradigm is the fact that much has changed in our perceptions of the ‘other’ and ourselves since the 19th century. We no longer view the ‘other’ as an inescapable stereotype. Today the ‘other’ is ourselves. We no longer know our own culture and we rarely revel in its greatness. We no longer have knowledge of our own heritage and we usually mock it. In contrast to our own self depreciation and self-mocking we revel in the heritage of the other, we learn his history before our own, we study his religion and we call his lifestyle exotic, while we condemn our lifestyle by calling it ‘silly’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘narrow minded’.

In many respects the heritage, history and lifestyle of the other has increasingly been adopted by ourselves while our own heritage, history and lifestyle has become foreign. Academics, intellectuals, the media and politicians use the foil of the other as a straw man to increasingly encourage us to push aside any interest we might have in our own communes and force us to take up the cause of the other in order to distance ourselves from the claim that he is being portrayed as the other.

This ridiculous self fulfilling prophecy, this viscous cycle has led to a complete abandonment of any knowledge of what it might mean to not be interested in the other. In a sense we have become the other to ourselves. Ourselves, or knowledge of what we are and where we came from and what our heritage encompasses, is completely foreign to most of us.

When an American says things such as ‘Americans are ignorant’ one can be assured that they do not know the first thing about American history. Yet their foil of ignorance does not lead them to acknowledge their own ignorance and want to research American history, their foil of ignorance is a way of saying ‘I want to know about other cultures.’ They have no even learned the first thing about their own culture and yet they want to know the religions and ideals and histories of other cultures. I once sat in a class entitled ‘world religions.’ The teacher began the class by putting Judaism, Islam and Christianity on the board. He then explained to us that ‘in this class we shall not study Christianity because all of you are Christians and know about Christianity.’ This is once again the straw man argument, the person sets up a supposed ‘knowledge’ so that it can be dismissed and knocked down so that he can talk about what he wants to talk about, namely the other. Another class I recall began with the professor explaining that ‘I know all of you are Zionists and were raised by Zionist families, therefore in this class I’m going to do something a little different, I’m going to present what you might consider radical, I’m going to present the other side.’ The brilliant professors assumption that the entire class was composed of ‘Zionists’ was perhaps bellied by the fact that more than half the class was composed of non-Jewish Europeans, surely people who were likely to be ‘Zionists.’ But the Professor didn’t believe the students really were ‘Zionists’ he merely had to set up the foil in order to justify his desire to teach the one thing he knew about, which was the ‘other side.’ I sat in classes as a young man in which Abraham Lincoln was described as a ‘honkie.’ I recall a cocktail party at which a white woman said to a Mexican man ‘I am just a dumb gringo, I don’t speak Spanish.’ I recall another class entitled Western Civilization in which not one student knew the number of the tribes of Israel, or the number of Commandments in the Bible. But these are integral parts of knowledge of the self, surely people should know this before they are asked by their colleges to learn about the difference between Shia and Sunni and learn the difference between Romadan and Sufism and Jihad. I recall a scene at a coffee shop where a young white woman lectured an Arab Muslim man about the ‘true’ meaning of some passage in the Koran. Only in the west would this be possible, that a white woman would be raised so that her knowledge of the Koran would be greater than some Muslim. One cannot imagine the scenario being turned around, no Arab Muslim woman would lecture a westerner on some obscure passage in the Old Testament. No Arab Muslim would be caught studying ‘Christian Cannon Law,’ but multitudes of western students have been deceived into studying ‘Islamic law in the 8th century Abbasid empire’ in order to better understand the ‘other’ so that the west can better integrate Muslims.

Gore Vidal once criticized American educated for imparting a great knowledge about the Holocaust than about the founding fathers. Basically he is correct. The Holocaust is an event with a universal message, but that doesn’t mean it should be taught before an American knows what the Bill of Rights is. After all how can a young American judge the immorality of the Holocaust and understand the processes that led to it, without understanding his own laws and his own rights that led his nation to be the one fighting against Nazism, rather than siding with it. A student raised today in the west may indeed reach maturity thinking that world history is composed only of Islamic legal thought and the Holocaust.

The concept of the other was derived to critique the fact that people were being raised in a manner that only exposed them to their heritage and way of life and increasingly meant that those who did not share their narrow way of life and their narrow view of history were castigated as ‘not us’ and usually portrayed negatively. But even in the time when the paradigm of the concept of the other was being developed it was already outdated. The idea of the other was supposed to be used as a way to understand why societies in the past frequently divided themselves along class, racial or religious lines. It was supposed to identify those positive societies where the ‘other’ was incorporated into society. Through the paradigm of the other the west was supposed to adopt a greater understanding about other people. It was not intended to replace our entire system of knowledge so that the only thing we knew about was the other and our own culture was discarded as being ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘racist’. Everytime one hears that a certain person ‘made great strides to understand the other’ one sill find a person who simply became the other, not someone who made any strides to understanding anything. Understanding the other is only possible in the context where one first understands themselves. Then it is possible to synthesize the heritage and history and lifestyle of the other and compare it with ones own. Devoting one’s entire life to learning about the other has nothing to do with understanding, it has everything to do with conversion. A European who spends his life learning Chinese and living in China hasn’t come to ‘understand the other’, he has simply become Chinese in all forms except for his pale skin, and while Chinese people will surely still view him as the other, he will have lost all knowledge or interest in his own heritage. In fact the greatest tragedy of the ‘us’-‘other’ dialogue is not just that it increasingly denies us the knowledge of ourselves, but it reinforces the continued hatreds and stereotypes of the other by never requesting that they too learn about us. Because most people who study the other have so little knowledge of themselves they are never able to share themselves with the other. Most people who study Islamic law, for instance, have no knowledge of their own non-Islamic religion, they implicitly accept the Islamic label for themselves as ‘kaffir’ and they never widen the Muslim’s view of the other, they merely reinforce his chauvinism by showing that non-Muslim kaffirs have nothing better to do in life than study Islamic law. For the dialogue of the ‘other’ to work both cultures must be interested in the other. For the logic to work one must realize that minorities see the majority as the other just as firmly as the majority sees the minority as the other. If one wants to end racial stereotyping one cannot simply say ‘I want to learn about the other’ one should say ‘I want to teach the other about myself and in so doing learn about the other.’ Every relationship between peoples that is not based on pride on both sides breaks down into hatred and violence, no matter the good intensions of one side. Self hatred, ignorance of the self and love for the other are not models of a society that will ever decrease hatred, in fact it may inadvertently increase hatred by encouraging greater nationalism and chauvinism on the part of the ‘other’ who is being worshipped.

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