Monday, 1 June 2009

Excluding the other: 10 theses

It’s spreading. The risk of pandemic is becoming very real. Not so long ago, you were safe. The problem was confined to a few isolated places in remote corners of the globe. It happened to people you didn’t know. It thrived only in certain dark, moist, underground environments (philosophy departments, postgraduate seminars and the like). But these days, it’s everywhere. It’s affecting entire communities. Even the most harmless and benign members of the public – clergymen, bureaucrats, environmental activists – are succumbing to its influence.

Yep, you’ve guessed it: I’m talking about the spreading pandemic of talk about “the other.” These days, you can hear it in the most unlikely places: a vegetarian activist worries about “the animal other”; a committee worries about “the rights” of “the other” to be heard and included; even preachers are getting involved, proclaiming the solemn mandate of “respect for the other.”

So I’m afraid there’s only one solution: a five-year moratorium on all talk about “the other” in ethical and theological discourse! 


Here are ten theses explaining why this moratorium is absolutely necessary:
  1. Most of the people talking about “the other” haven’t read even a single book by Emmanuel Levinas, and thus have no idea what the term actually means.
  2. At least in theological circles, the term functions mainly as an emotional trigger: someone mentions “the other”, and suddenly we feel all warm and tingly. 
  3. Sometimes, these warm and tingly feelings lead us to imagine that something meaningful was actually said.
  4. Levinas deploys the concept of “the other” as part of a larger set of philosophical arguments about the relations between ethics and ontology, language and presence, ethics and morality. 
  5. If “the other” is to function as a normative concept in theological discourse (as it does already in some circles), we should hear some justification of the validity and importance of this broader philosophical schema within which the concept is located. 
  6. In particular, Christians might wonder precisely how “truth” is supposed to fit into this schema.
  7. And we might wonder whether a “humanitarianism of the other” fits rather too neatly with an evacuation of political decision from the sphere of international relations: i.e., whether benevolent talk about “the other” (like talk about “human rights”) is fundamentally a concealment of the operations of power. 
  8. Speaking of power: if I conclude a theological argument by appealing to “the other”, am I not invoking a transcendental norm whose role is precisely to silence any possible objection to my argument?
  9. I once attended a philosophy conference on the ethics of “the other.” The scholarly discussion of Levinas somehow turned to animal ethics, and before long one of the presenters was tearfully describing his household pets. I looked around, and was embarrassed to see that many of the participants were also in tears; it was like an old-time revival meeting, except without God. 
  10. This incident confirmed the truth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell is the others). But Sartre was not quite right. Hell is not the other; hell is the place where everyone talks about the other.

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