Resisting Universality

The International Literature Festival of Berlin asked poet Charles Bernstein for a micro-video addressing racism, nationalism, and the possibility of co-existence. This is a transcription below from his video:

“We may be all in this together, depending on what that means. Whatever the common    menace, our outcomes will never be the same. Deep below our difference is not interconnection but incommensurability. Human is not so much shared as contested. Empathy and solidarity are crucial investments but acknowledging our uncommonness alongside our commonness grounds struggles to resist hegemony of the universality.”

These words are important to keep in mind when different groups try to compare their suffering with each other. It’s tempting to lean towards phrases such as ‘we are all in this together’ or ‘we are all human’ or ‘we all share so much in common’ or ‘all lives matter’. But these cliches hide disconnection and lack of empathy. Even cruelty. Forcing sameness can shut down understanding and responsibility.

For example, Jews might try to compare their own past and current suffering with the historical and present suffering of Blacks. There certainly seems to be a lot in common.

However, as Rabbi Yosef Bechoffer discusses in this video, the differences are profound and distinct. It is often the opposite of empathy to try to force connections between the two groups. Empathy is born out of knowing our “uncommonness” and acknowledging “incommensruablity”. For instance, Rabbi Bechoffer says, that although the Jewish people have slavery in their history and historical memory (ancient Egyptian enslavement of the Jewish people), “We have to understand that [Black slavery] was a unique experience which we did not undergo.”  He also emphasises some differences between the horrors in Jewish history (mass slaughter) and the horrors in Black history (de-humanisation). “We do not have a dehumanized history. The slavery in our history in Egypt was of a completely different kind. And we came to America as a choice. We did not come here shackled and chained and we were not treated like animals.”

Simone de Beuvoir also delineates difference in this way, resisting the ‘hegemony of universality’ when she writes in The Second Sex, for instance, that the world seems to want to dehumanise Blacks, obliterate Jews, and subordinate women.

Whether Rabbi Bechoffer or de Beuavoir are correct or not in the way they outline differences, the fact is, it is humanizing to be aware of differences and to allow empathy to flow from that place.

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas articulated this idea of honouring the differences of others as opposed to commonalities and suggests that doing so is the deepest form of empathy. He invented a model he called the ‘face to face encounter’ which was his metaphor for encountering another person’s experience. He suggested that the “Self” becomes immediately aware of the Other’s vulnerability and otherness. The ‘Other’ is human (profoundly vulnerable) and, subject to objectification, and they contain an infinite well of feelings, experiences, and thoughts that we will never fully understand, relate to, or know. Acknowledging this is the beginning of empathy.

I wrote about Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins ‘I Measure every Grief I meet’ in an earlier blog. This poem applies to the discussion here as it captures the ‘face to face’ encounter. The speaker is imagining the suffering of another:

I wonder if when Years have piled –
Some Thousands – on the Harm –
That hurt them early – such a lapse
Could give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve –
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love –

Instead of making statements about why someone is suffering, she asks questions. And acknowledges various possible causes: ‘The Grieved – are many – I am told –There is the various Cause – ’

Lévinas argues that an encounter with another person forbids a reduction to complete commonality and calls for a responsibility for the other. Dickinson looks in wonder at the suffering of others, mentions her own pain, but does not pretend to fully understand what other people are going through. Perhaps this is the deepest empathy.

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