Teaching “the Other”

Dawson Peace Garden

Dawson – The New “Other” as The New “Us”?

Most writers and journalists who have grown up with the contemporary world and have puzzled about it are also people who think about the perennial divisions of “Us” and “Them.” That is particularly  true of those of us who are both immigrants and have had parents who came from mixed cultural backgrounds.

We live in one of the world’s great ages of migration, and if we inhabit a cosmopolitan city, many of our family and friends are people with varied roots. In Montreal that cultural “métissage” has been particularly evident in the last decade.  One way that I think of it is by remembering that I have taught literature at Montreal’s Dawson College,  on different occasions, over the course of 40 years, and interestingly, in one sense I am much closer to my students now than in the past.

Years ago, if I stood in a classroom, I was  the only person with dual nationality. Now I often have classes in which 10% or more of the students are dual-nationals, and in one class recently the majority had two passports.

Of course, it is always dangerous to assume that cosmopolitanism is the norm or will come to rule history. No one in the age of the Emperor Augustus thought that the imperium romanum would devolve as it did, nor could the people who were so attached to Warsaw’s diversity before 1939 have possibly imagined that only 5 years later the city’s Jewish population would be exterminated.

The tensions between internationalism and nationalism, between universalism and ethnic identity, have played an important historical role over a surprisingly long period, and nationalism obviously remains a vital force in our own time.

So today especially, the person of mixed background embodies an interesting paradox. On the one hand, she or he seeks to transcend differences and is often the biological expression of parents who have done just that. On the other hand, the culturally mixed person often psychologically holds on strongly to her sense of inherited identities because their mixture makes her what she is. There is an internal interplay between identity and difference, and people of varied background often must choose aspects of themselves that they will stress as most important. Sometimes they become passionate nationalists as a way of resolving conflict that is both personal and political. That  choice is a particularly crucial one during those political periods when nationalism is a vital tool to fight against oppression and imperialism.

The tragic killing at Dawson five years ago was not political in an way. It was a radically contingent event that resulted from one young man’s deep psychological disorder and the gravity of the act cannot be explained by an over-arching sociology. But it is striking to me, as someone who was in the college on that day, how the people involved bear the hallmarks of this global age. Anastasia DeSousa, the one victim who died, was a Canadian of Portugese descent and had a Polish grandmother. Kimveer Singh Gill, the shooter,  was a young Canadian from a Punjabi background. The three weapons he carried into the college that day were manufactured in Italy, Austria, and China.

Also striking was the fact that immediately after the shooting the student population seemed to instinctively understand that what took place originated in individual psychic conflict, and no one reached for any essentialist or ethnic explanation of what had happened.

Without being blind to the searing conflicts around us in the world, it is fair to say that the students at Dawson College, like a lot of their peers in similar urban centres in Canada, exemplify two very important facts about changes now taking place in Canadian life.  First, they are adding to and changing a new “Us,” a population that will look different, and perhaps think differently in the future. Secondly, these students are much less likely to see Others, to judge “Them” – whoever they may be – in ethnic terms. Perhaps one reason for their relative openness is that they themselves have a direct experience of otherness. They have been “Others”  and know the benefits of not “splitting” the world.

Dawson Peace Garden photo #2

Some of these thoughts lay behind my decision at Dawson one year ago to teach The Other, a well-known set of short lectures by the polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuściński . After all, I thought, these young people will understand this book – they are the “Other” forming a new “Us.”

As it turned out, I was wrong in my assumption that Kapuściński’s book would be almost a natural thing to teach in the 2011 version of Dawson College,  and what happened in the classroom told me a lot. For some time I reflected  and felt that the students had been oddly refractory. The conclusion I drew was that they were the evolving Other in the process of becoming Us,  but did not or would not recognize this fact about themselves. Yet the more I think about this question of altérité,  the more I feel that there was something very important eluding me. In some ways, I was wrong and the students were right to resist the book, if only unconsciously.

So….here is the story of teaching The Other.


The Book, The Class, and Common Humanity

The Other is a slim book consisting of talks given in Vienna, Graz, and Krakow between 1990 and 2004. The speaker, and the author, was Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), a polish journalist who worked outside of Europe for forty years, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Kapuściński was born to a poor family in 1932, and in the 1940s he was a member of the Polish communist party (The Polish United Workers’ Party) , and remained in it until the end of its rule. A vivid, ironic writer, he had the gift of getting to know all kinds of people, and by the end of the 1950s he became Poland’s roving international correspondent. I had read a number of his well-known books which chronicled the horrors of modern power – such as his portrait of the Shah of Iran’s regime – and I had been fascinated by his account of the absurd “soccer war” between El Salvador and Honduras. The Other was a book I read during a summer break in Saskatchewan and I was glad to see that someone with the field experience of a reporter had described a primordial source of political conflict in our age: the shifting, dynamic relation of Self and Other throughout the world.

The Other takes as its premise that both people of European descent and the world as a whole must shed Eurocentrism.

The Other takes as its premise that both people of European descent and the world as a whole must shed Eurocentrism. As Kapuściński puts it, “ the world’s destiny has developed in such a way that for the past five centuries European culture or civilisation has dominated us, and as a result in saying ‘we,’ we understood – ‘we, all people’, though in reality we meant only us, the Europeans.” Now that is irrevocably changing, he says, through a new, polyphonic conversation between the Self and those outside, on all continents not just Europe,  and since the composition of the Self also dynamically includes the Other, then a “new kind of person or being is created.”

While this hope for open dialogue in the future is almost transcendental, Kapuściński is also very tough on the past legacy of the West: “At the end of the European Middle Ages and at the start of modern times, Europe’s great expedition to conquer the world, enslave the Other and pillage his possessions wrote pages of blood and cruelty into the history of our planet.”

However, Kapuściński counts on anthropology, philosophy, communication, and exchange to overcome the traditional hostility to the Other which has expressed itself either through War or Autarchy. Only a true attitude of dialogue and encounter, he says,  can overcome innate human traits of narcissism and ambivalence.

This argument was the one I sought to convey to the students and I thought it all the more apt since it came from a man who had spent the major portion of his life among people who were not his own.

As I taught the text, however, I pointed out to the students that there are logical flaws in the book. Our Polish guide in reaching the Other was himself riven by contradictions. The first, and most important, is Kapuściński’s Eurocentrism. And the second is his inverted class consciousness, a kind  of upside-down Marxism that blames the faults of the ruling class upon the quality of the people below. I thought the fact that this keen observer was also Eurocentric would be an illustration to the students of how perceptive viewpoints are themselves often skewed.

The opening section of The Other holds up the ancient greek historian Herodotus as a beacon to us today, since Herodotus “wrote about Others without contempt or hatred” and he understood “that to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as the mirror in which we see ourselves.” But in this very same section of the book, Kapuściński makes a claim which a number of critics have pointed to as a kind of poison that has tainted  his work as a whole. The early passage in The Other is worth looking at in full:

In this march of civilisations [the rise and fall of empires], Europe will be the exception, because it is the only one, right from its Greek beginnings, to show curiosity about the world and a desire not just to conquer and dominate it, but also to have knowledge of it; and in the case of its best minds, nothing but knowledge, understanding and closer relations with a view to forming a human community. [Kapuściński’s emphasis]

This claim of a unique European curiosity is ahistorical and false. It is an ex post facto explanation of history that comes from reading events backwards through a kind of need for Hegelian immanence. All cultures are curious and something like “the unexamined life is not worth living” has been articulated in many places and at many times. The history of ancient Greece or the Rise of the West is a lot more complex – and crazy –than what is suggested by Kapuściński’s picture of a European logos standing alone on a promontory.

Dawson Peace Garden photo #3

Some time ago, in 2001, William Finnegan writing in The Times Literary Supplement pointed out that Kapuściński’s “magnificent sympathy” sometimes “simply deserts him” in his writing, and Finnegan pointed to a book about Africa The Shadow of the Sun: “The low point, analytically speaking, of The Shadow of the Sun, is marked when Africa’s troubles are attributed to a lack of ‘critical spirit’ by an author self-congratulatory in his Europeanism.”

The Other, then, presents us with an author seeking to escape Eurocentrism, as well as a man seeking to convince others to free themselves too, while he is in fact captured in the toils of his very own cultural narcissism. That is not so surprising  perhaps– because if Kapuściński is right about the powerful centrality of our relations with the Other, then he too might probably be so trapped.

I was teaching this book in a course which included Shakespeare’s Othello and Black Boy by the American novelist Richard Wright – and the readings began with Kapuscincski and excerpts from Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Rather a lot for 15 weeks….

The class was beautiful – I use that word to describe their variety, intelligence, good will, and decency, not their scholastic properness.. They were not perfect students, far from it. They included people with connections to all the continents except Australia and Anatarctica. They spoke many languages. They were young and they were parents, they were earnest and alienated, charming and diffident.

One young woman whose family comes from one of the famous Greek islands, and who revisits it nearly every year, rose to the occasion when we discussed the navigation of the ancient Greeks – their “curiosity” – and the material necessity that lay behind their push to the sea.

She had her own version of the emergence of Greek civilisation – and Western Europe’s too : IT WAS AN ACCIDENT! That notion of a contingency – or set of contingencies – fits the historical evidence much better than Kapuściński’s notion of some inner trait that then expresses itself in the development of a culture.

There were also two ladies from Zimbabwe in the class studying nursing, and in the middle of the term I arranged that they would become tutorial students because of their workload. We had read a few chapters of The Shadow of the Sun and I had pointed out to the class as a whole that Kapuściński seemed to suffer from a common reporter’s dilemma: developing a dislike of the very African people he was reporting about.

One of the ladies took me to task: “These students are very young. You are showing them this book that gives a distorted view of Africa and then expecting them to be able to distinguish the reality of African life from the biases that are part of the book. I don’t think you should really be teaching it.” I told her that I regretfully had to agree.

The essay assignment asked the students to explain the main ideas in The Other and the contradictions in the book – both the objective difficulties that Kapuściński describes for cultural dialogue and the internal contradictions in his argument.

A very quiet, brilliant dual-national – both Swedish and Canadian – produced the best essay in which he clearly set out the tension between Kapuściński’s ideal of transcending fearful hatred,  and his portrait in The Other of the barriers behind which cultures hide: race consciousness, nationalism, and religion. The student was very lucid and clear. He saw the dialogue that Kapuściński wished for, but also the same picture in Kapuściński’s  argument of the encrusted structures that prevent dialogue from taking place.

The comments of the Dawson student were not all that different from those of Andrew Rice, writing in The Nation in 2007, who drew a more tragic picture of this polish writer: “Ultimately, Kapuściński sees the world as composed of tribes, and for all his travels among them, he doesn’t believe that they can ever really communicate with one another.”

As I remember, the Dawson  student was saying something different about Kapuściński, and more hopeful really: that the categories that prevent real dialogue really do require some form of universalism to enable the full dialogue that Kapuściński genuinely wanted to take place.

The events of the Arab Spring speak, I think, of this need for universal rights and political liberties, however particularist the various outcomes may be. These protests were not supposed to take place, they did not fit “The Arab Mind,” they were unforeseen. That is their most important feature. They speak of an emergence that cannot be predicted and of a common humanity of the kind that one finds among the young people at Dawson.

I do not think I will teach The Other again, but I will keep all my books by Kapuściński.

And I will think warmly of his humanity, too.

Montreal Sept. 21, 2011

Patrick Barnard is Montreal teacher, Green space activist, filmmaker and editor of Montreal Serai.