“WE” and the “Corporate IT”

 The I-Thou relationship has been explored by a number, but of course most famously by Martin Buber. It describes a close mutual relationship that still allows for freedom and individuation. It informs of what our relationships should be, since we are social creatures… our social humanity, in the best sense of the term. We are connected in a web of supportive relationships, but these “I-Thou” relationships empower us rather than enmesh us. Ideally, they help us with our self-understanding. We get a sense of our self-identity through our relating to and contrasting with ‘the Other.’ Quoting Ludwig Feurbach, “Where there is no ‘Thou’, there is no ‘ I ‘.” But such mutual (and mutually human), respectful, supportive, close relationships are not universal. In fact as limited confused beings in a broken world, such relationships are not common enough… almost ephemeral.

Some relationships may not meet the standards of “I-Thou’” but still be healthy. After all, with over 7 billion people on earth, we lack the ability (due to our finiteness in space, time, and frankly nearly any conceivable capacity) to have close, personal self-affirming and other-affirming relationships with all. Harvey Cox and John Macquarrie describe “I-You” relationships. The change of pronoun describes a relationship that is healthy and affirming but not as close. However, the humanity and freedom of the other is respected and affirmed.

Consider, for a moment, another possible relationship between people. This is the “I-It” possibility. In this relationship, the other is objectified. In this situation, the other is, relationally speaking, dehumanized. This can happen in a slave system where the “owner” relates to those who work for him as “property,” regardless of whether he believes, in an abstract sense that they are fellow humans. Of course, slavery is not the only place where such dehumanization occurs. It can happen also whenever others are treated primarily as commodities or tools. In this case, others are valued for what they can do for me (the “I”) not for who they are. The other is a functional service provider. This is a FAR too common relationship.i-thou

However, when one gets to this type of relationship, there are more than one possible type of form. Melba Padilla Maggay, in her book Transforming Society, talked of an ethnographic study that saw a group of people who related to others in one of three ways— human, tool, or landscape. You can read more this in my article HERE.

The I-It relationship can exist where the It is seen as a tool. Some, unfortunately, may see workers in the service sector (“Welcome to McDonalds. May I take your order?”) as tools– NOT people who one needs to relate to as fellow human beings. Others may be seen as Landscape– irrelevant at best, problems at worst.

As one moves into the I-It relationship, and even more as one moves towards It as Landscape, one is moving towards a group identity or “Corporate It.” Or to put it another way, one is moving towards “Impersonal They.” But even with those who are recognized as useful (tools) there can be the problem of seeing them impersonally.

What are some ways we create the “Corporate It”?

  • Commoditizing. We see a certain group for what they do, not who they are. They are valued (perhaps) for the role they accomplish, or maybe not. The relationship between Filipinos and the residents of Hong Kong has been… strained for a while. I recall a writer complaining about the some of the conflicts going on between the Hong Kong and the Philippines.  He made some comment asking why the people of Hong Kong should listen to a country of house maids. Sorry, don’t have the quote in front of me. The writer was insulting a nation because of a role common in Hong Kong. Many from the Philippines go to Hong Kong to work as domestic help. This was not just in Hong Kong. In older American English dictionaries, the term “Filipino” was a slang term for domestic help. This term is no longer used today, but seeing them in this role… a menial one, the writer was suggesting that Filipinos should not be taken seriously, except as help. Of course, Filipinos go to Hong Kong to do menial work, not because they are stupid, many are very intelligent and can do a wide variety of jobs. But because of lack of opportunities at home, they are committed to help out, economically, their families at by dong menial work abroad. Even positive commodity roles still demean, however, because they tend to stereotype.

  • Stereotyping. When a common (or sometimes even uncommon) characteristic of a group is applied to all members of a group, the group is demeaned, normally, since stereotypes are normally negative. Gypsies/Romany have been judged as a group based on some perceptions regarding a few. During World War II, Nazi German stereotyped Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals, Gypsies and others. They were caricatured, ridiculed, and then determined unfit to live. However, American media did similar caricatures of Germans, Italians, and especially the Japanese at that time as well. Of course, it happens today as well in many different flavors and forms. Commonly, stereotypes go in pairs. For example, living in Baguio City, Philippines, we see some especially bad drivers, or annoying venders or customers, and we often say, “Oh, they are from Manila.” Of course, what we are saying really is that “They… people from Manila act inappropriately— unlike us who behave well.” However, even when stereotypes of others is positive… it still may disrespect their complexity as a group and as individuals. It can still dehumanize to some extent.

  • Re-labelling. One might argue that labels dehumanize automatically. On some level that may be true. I am an American living in the Philippines. Baguio City is pretty comfortable with foreigners… but when I get further into the provincial regions, I get labelled a bit more… “Ay! Americano!” or “Hey Joe!” (my name is not Joe, by the way). But that is not all that bad. We need to label. When I go into the provincial areas, it is inconvenient and uninformative for people to say, “Ay! A fellow human being I have not seen before!” But the use of labels can dehumanize… especially when we reject the labels that they choose and substitute them with our own. Some groups get ignored by labels that exclude their uniqueness. In the US, there are people who seem to think that every one of apparent hispanic/latino ancestry is “Mexican.” In the movie “The Debut” a Fil-Am teenager is insulted by another by being called “a Chink.” This is a double insult, because it is not only a pejorative group term, but it also connects him to a completely different ethnic group. I have seen articles dumped on Facebook that try to make the argument that the “Palestinians” don’t really exist because they lack a certain historical basis for their group designation. How bizarre! A group becomes valid within milliseconds of being formed. In the case of Palestinians, some people were seeking to relabel them by unlabeling them, and in so doing, to deny their legitimacy. It really doesn’t work that way.

  • Demonizing. Demonizing is like stereotyping and also involves pairs. In politics this happens a lot. One group is doing everything wrong. They do the wrong things… pretty much all the time. Even when they SEEM to do something right, it is done based on wrong motives, so it is still wrong. We, on the other hand, do what is right, and for the right reasons. When we seem to do something wrong… it is to counter the wrong actions of Them… which is a right motive, making the action right. In the politics of religion and race, this happens a lot too. I am not sure I need to give examples… they are just too common.

I am sure there are others… all of them objectify to some extent.

In Christian Missions, it is common to embrace the Corporate It.

  • People who are not “Us” are labelled “The Lost,” “Sinners,” “The Mission Field.” Each of these are rather negative. We all are sinners after all. The Lost may be theologically accurate but so are other terms that are more affirming such as “Those Jesus Misses Most” (See the book “A.K.A. ‘Lost'”). The last one, “The Mission Field” fully objectifies in that it removes totally the sense of humanity from them— the people become part of the landscape.

  • Commoditization is also common. We track conversion rates, baptism rates, church growth, church planting rates. People become statistics. It is easy to move people from God’s creation to a number.

  • Stereotyping is common as well. Our methodology is built off of a common vision of what They think and are like. There is nothing inherently wrong with it… but it can become a problem when we stop seeing people as individuals but members of stereotyped categories.

  • Demonizing can be a major problem as well. The Warfare metaphor and Power Encounter theory of missions is common in some circles. Unfortunately, these terms tend to create an “Us” versus “Them” mentality…. and “Us” versus “The Enemy.” While there may be some theological truth to this metaphor… the mindset tends to lead to demonizing, since it seems to be part of human nature that we objectify the enemy before we fight them.

Suggestions.  I won’t give many suggestions here. Just three.

  1. Recognize that the highest and most important social group we are part of is Humanity. God created us as humans in His own image. And in His image we remain… we may have fallen, but we have fallen together, and God seeks to restore us all… His creation. Perhaps for Christians, our next highest group is as Spiritual Children of God… below our humanity, but still important. Below that can be things like gender, ethnicity, nationality, and such. A lot of problems occur when we set up or taxonomies wrong.

  2. Recognize our own diversity and the diversity of others. The “We” or “They” does not eradicate our individuality, nor that of others.

  3. Hold mutual accountability. Supporting one’s own group, the “We” doesn’t mean simply excusing, ignoring, or defending our faults. True support maintains accountability. And if We need accountability (both positive and negative accountability) so do They. It is respectful to do so, but with gentleness.

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