The other without specification: the value of diversity

The value of diversity

What is more difficult, welcoming the Other as stranger, as the one who is different, or welcoming the Other as neighbour, as the one who comes from my own country or culture? It is in the foreigner that we would all identify an Other difficult to readily accept. I believe, however, that this instinctive answer reveals a fundamental misunderstanding, this being that the Other – whom I distinguish from myself through specific characteristics – is a subject different to me qua subject. The Other is Other inasmuch as the Other is not me. Isn’t the Other, for the very reason of not being identical to me, now and always different to me? Experiencing the Other isn’t uncommon. In Italian, several expressions translate the discovery of diversity into words: “I believed you to be different (Ti credevo diverso)!”, “I never imagined you’d be this way (Non avrei mai immaginato fossi così)!, “I thought I knew you … (Credevo di conoscerti …)” and many others, in a similar vein, invariably showing our own amazement (and disappointment) at being wrong. It should be obvious that these expressions are usually used by people who have a certain familiarity, if not intimacy, with one another. What could this mean? Those who have come to realisations similar to those listed above have lived through the experience of taking a cold shower! After months or perhaps even years of a relationship, something or someone suddenly awakens us to the fact of being before another person: before an Other, to be precise! Yet while a similar instinctive reaction is understandable we could, with time and on a case by case basis, begin asking ourselves where and in what way we were mistaken. That’s when the difficult part arrives: recognising, perhaps, that I have forced the Other into a box, into my idea of the Other. In other words, I have not been respectful of the Otherness of the Other. Is this all idle speech? If we had to be honest with ourselves, wouldn’t we be able to think of one time – even just once – when we did something similar? Might we not perhaps identify established and deeply-rooted attitudes within ourselves that we consider completely normal, perhaps even necessary? Once again, we don’t lack expressions to translate this experience into words: “I told you to do that (Te lo avevo detto di fare così)!”, “You’re a disaster, thank God I’m here (Sei una frana, per fortuna ci sono io)!” and “You’re special … (Sei una persona speciale …)” where, within the word “special”, all sorts of accumulated fantasies about that special person are deposited. The point is that, from childhood, in our daily experience leads to reduce everyone and everything to categories. We use this process to interpret and, trusting in our own interpretation, reduce complex situations such as relationships to simple mental schemes. “He/She looked at me in that way … that means …”, “He/She behaved in a detached way all evening … so that means …” and so on. Naturally, our intuitions may at times be correct. However, how many times do we acknowledge that we’ve made a terrible error in evaluating a person incorrectly? And, once we’ve recognized our mistake, how many times have we compounded our mistake and been partial in our assessment by using a single criterion based on our own feelings or current state of mind rather than taking into account a more complex series of aspects of the person? How many times have we supposed we are better or lesser than the person before us? How many times we are blinded believing we are superior because of our culture, status, origin or religion. How many horrors have been committed trying to resist the unmasking of this arrogance. How much pettiness, how much falsehood engineered to defend ourselves from the truth. Can there be, then, space for the Other, whoever the Other is, between the mirrored walls of an “I” whose only point of reference is “I” itself? Let’s try and consider the risks of a similar mechanism. If I do not give space for the one before me to narrate himself, not only by preventing him from speaking but, above all, by refusing to listen to him or listening only partially – emptying, in this manner, the very meaning of communication – I will condemn myself, inevitably, to a self-referential life, to life ever more involuted and frustrated, perpetually on guard before others. Whether it’s out of fear, out of a difficulty with relationships, out of self-interest or “simply” out of a narrow view of the world, it becomes necessary to return to being intrigued by reality, to leave the safety of our warm and well-worn comfort zones (today sold to us as the way to our own salvation!). I’ll give an example from my own life in order to avoid offending anyone. It often happens that I hold classes for people from all sorts of different walks of life on topics such as welcoming of migrants, interreligious dialogue and diversity. In the afternoons, I meet students and volunteers at an Italian language school. Twice a week, I spend my nights at a welcome centre for refugees. Over time, I’ve come to see first hand what it means to “force an Other into my way of seeing things”! In fact, often finding myself hearing the same requests from the refugees at the centre, feeling these requests to be at times pretentious, at times annoying, at times legitimate (according to the person making the request), I began to follow and unravel the tangled thread of my own opinions, my evaluations, my likes and dislikes. Why am I using a centre for refugees as an example? Precisely because due to my choice of life and daily work in this field, I believed myself to be free of and protected from certain dynamics, the responsibility for which I would then assign to “different” types of environment. I confess, instead, often arriving tired at the refugee centre, and despite the desire to be with refugees and at their service, I began to activate what I could call my “energy saving mode”. A simplified description, perhaps, of what was said above, a way of avoiding the struggle of evaluating, interacting and welcoming each person, one by one. The alarm finally went off when, going into “automatic mode”, I stopped listening, limiting myself to my assumptions depending on the person, assumptions previously set in stone by the situations I had experienced, or by my role. I thank God that the time for a cold shower had arrived, the time for awakening, the time for crisis. It is objectively rather tiring to have to deal with the Other as is. The temptation to simplify is always, decidedly, one that is extremely tempting. Yet I wonder: is an alternative possible? Yes, if we think of reality as a series of empty, watertight containers to be organised, preserved or discarded. Not, if we believe that every action, including the most banal, have the ability to generate habits, inclinations, ways of being, thinking and seeing the world, others and ourselves, teaching us in our daily activities, choices, tastes and desires. No. We have a wonderful opportunity, thanks to others, especially now that others embody so much diversity. We not only have the possibility but also the responsibility to take on the commitment and shoulder the difficulty of forming others towards the value of diversity because, against the dangerous stupidity of fascism, racism and other such crimes, “only the absolutely foreign can teach us” (E. Levinas).

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