Last week’s horrific events revived the debate about “accepting the other.” Ostensibly, this expression reflects openness toward others and recognition of a basic obligation. But the expression establishes a hierarchical ethic that bases the relationship on the “I” that marks the other person as “the other.”
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Characterizing an individual or a society as “the other” is done by the “I” — he or it is other for me because of the difference from me. This otherness creates a distance.
It’s true that all people differ from one another. This difference expresses their dignity, their ability to shape themselves uniquely. This isn’t “otherness” and doesn’t involve an obligation to “accept the other.” We are different creatures but still close to one another.
Nowadays we use the marker “the other” to describe people like gays, lesbians, Palestinians, foreigners, religious people and secular people. These individuals and groups are seen as different from the “I” and as a threat to it. Marking them “others” denotes the distance between the “I” and them.
“Accepting the other” is carried out in two steps. First mark them as strangers, as a threat worthy of exclusion. Then craft a mechanism of inclusion; usually the mechanism is a call for tolerance.
Proponents of tolerance assume that it alone expresses what is worthy and proper. The tolerant person gives up his right to use force against the other for various reasons. Tolerance is a paradox: Tolerance requires what it rejects. Accepting the other, which is based on tolerance, is a repetition of rejection and a willingness to confirm the other’s existence.
Under this mechanism of rejecting and including, “others” are judged, marked, restricted and arranged in a hierarchical order in relation to the “I” who judges them as being other.
The degree to which they are accepted is always conditional on the judge’s ability to accept them: “I recognize the rights of gays but I’m not willing to grant them various rights, and why should they be like that in public?” “I recognize that the Palestinians are human beings, but I’m not willing to grant them national rights that harm us.”
This acceptance comes with a restriction and an expiration date the moment the “other” crosses the boundary of what the “I” is willing to grant. The basis for the rhetoric of the “other” is the narcissism that maintains that “I” am the criterion of the values, rights and visibility of the other; the otherness is measured in relation to me. Therefore, the moment the “I” perceives another person as a threat, that person disappears and becomes "the other.”
“The other” is a mechanism for undermining the dignity, wholeness and identity of human beings; it could lead to physical or emotional murder. As human beings we want to be what we are. We cannot and do not seek to conceal our identities; we do not want to live in a space where our existence is labeled “other” and restricted. Otherness is a mechanism with which the abundance of the other’s existence is flattened.
The concept of "the other” has marginalized the correct approach — the one that treats every person as a creature of independent value without a price. Respect creates a distance. I withdraw from my desire to control the other person and his world and let him appear as he is.
Respect for the other person reflects recognition of the prohibition “thou shalt not kill” the body, the soul, the identity. Respect is the beginning of humane behavior; it enables compassion, sensitivity and a nonjudgmental approach.
This is entirely different from the narcissistic “I” that includes the other within himself. Forging an approach that respects humane behavior is the profound challenge of Israeli society. Out of this shared humaneness we will revisit our disputes and argue with one another over what is worthy and good.
Avi Sagi is a professor at Bar-Ilan University’s philosophy department and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.