Accepting our Mutual “Crappiness”

Before I get into my topic more fully, I would like to share a quote from Martin Buber.

Genuine conversation, and therefore, every actual fulfillment and relationship between men, means acceptance of otherness… Everything depends, as far as human life is concerned, on whether each thinks of the other as the one he is, whether each, that is, with all his desire to influence the other, nevertheless unreservedly accepts and confirms him in his being this man and in his being made in this particular way.

Marin Buber, Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (Humanity Books, 1998), 59. Quoted by Mordechai Gordon “Listening as Embracing the Other: Martin Buber’s Philosphy of Dialogue” Education Theory. Vol. 61, No. 2 (2011) University of Illinois

I am going to relay a story very vaguely. An old friend of mine (only have communicated in the last 30 years on FB) posted a mildly humorous political joke that was presumably slightly pro-conservative (in terms of American politics) by poking light fun at pro-liberals (again, in terms of American politics). I had no real problem with it. I don’t ascribe to any particular American political ideology. But then something interesting happened. One person (who sounded strangely like me… at least in this comment) said something about the two sides should really get together and talk things out. My old friend went ballistic about that. It seemed to be an odd thing comment to get so heated about it. My old friend went into something of the sort… “Where did positive dialogue happen back in _______ when THEY __________!!!!”

That was so strange. But on reflection, it wasn’t so strange. This is a very human reaction. People don’t like to have conversations with people of different perspectives. People like to have “face moves on” (of “to dunk on”) people of other perspectives… or more likely, listen to others who like to use rhetoric to make others look bad. In the case of my friend, he essentially said that he did not want to have a healthy conversation with people of a different perspective because people of that group did “bad stuff” in the past. Curiously, the bad stuff was no more bad that people in his own camp have done at different times. Part of me wants to say that that is not logical… it is not rational. However, people aren’t really rational— and that is okay. We are emotional beings. That is good, but there are risks. Blood feuds have lasted, in some places, for years… even centuries… where each side blames the other for past crimes that their own side had done just as much.

It is not a good look (especially for Christians) when it comes to interreligious communication. But it is probably NEVER a good look. Even the most wrongheaded person is right some of the time. And even the most rightheaded person is wrong some of the time (a LOT of the time).

So what gives genuine conversation? Looking at Buber,

  1. Acceptance of otherness. The other person is not a stereotype… a strawman caricature. The other person is not a demon. In fact, if they believe things from you, it probably comes from a good place not bad. They believe their beliefs are correct and beneficial. They probably are not comic book villains who do things “to perpetuate evil” (at least from their own perspective). Thanos (the movie incarnation of the character at least) thought he was doing things to perpetuate good (even if his plan was pretty stupid).
  2. Accept their desire of others to influence. People believe they are right and that if others shared their views, the world would be at least slightly better. In other words, USUALLY people want to influence others, and this desire comes from a good place, not a bad place. If one can accept that the motives of the other are probably good.
  3. Act Intentionally. To unreservedly accept and confirm the other doesn’t happen naturally. It must be done intentionally. One must choose to override one’s natural tendency to dehumanize (demonize, move from I-you to I-it) others, and accept that different perspectives may come from good motives.
  4. Recognize our Mutual Crappiness. Despite the fact that most of us may have good motives behind our disparate beliefs, our tendency to demonize those we disagree with, and tendency to think that others have bad motives behind their differences—- well, that is pretty crappy. But if we all tend to do this, then we are mutually crappy. Knowing this can also help us break down barriers— we share a common struggle. Our conflict with others, is first of all a conflict within ourselves.

“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.