Otherness

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Head, and his grandson Nelson visit Atlanta for the day. Head, a poor and sad old man, undertakes to tutor Nelson in racial hierarchy. On the train to the city, a prosperous black man passes by. Nelson must be educated. Blackness remains the great challenge to writers of fiction on all sides of the color line, for the central role of race in American Othering affects us all, white and nonwhite, black and nonblack, not just writers who are white.

Morrison describes her own struggles with color codes in her work, notably in her novels Paradise and Home , and her story and play Recitatif Characters may have racial identities—in the USA, race is too salient a part of experience to overlook. But race should not decide how a character acts or thinks or speaks or looks. The actors in Recitatif , like editors and many readers, want to identify characters by race—a crucial ingredient of American identity, but one defined by generalizations rooted in the history of slavery and too facilely evoked through recognizable stereotypes. Where Morrison identifies race, she struggles against the expectations of race.

Colorism appears early on in the novel with wealth; in , members of an established black community turn away a group of freedmen deemed too poor and too dark. Nearby, a group of women, seeking refuge from unhappy pasts, move into an old convent. But that is not the only source: In Paradise , misogyny fuels the hatred that kills.

Looking back on Home , Morrison admits to misgivings. Throughout her career, Morrison has confronted those habits and broken them down, not just in her own writing but also in her work as an editor.


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In her 19 years at Random House, Morrison made known the stories of a variety of specific lives and their individual identities. In , she published a nonfiction anthology: The Black Book , a scrapbook of black history drawn from the collection of Middleton A. Harris, who also served as its editor. There readers discovered photographs of black soldiers in impeccable uniforms, black families in their Sunday best, patents for typewriters and laundry machines, and early black movie stars, along with postcards of smiling white people at a lynching.

The abundance and variety of material relating to the history of people of African descent in The Black Book opened millions of eyes to diversity within blackness, a crucial step in loosening the grip of American apartheid. Rather she condoned an act that saved a child from enslavement. The figure of the supportive mother-in-law fascinated Morrison and formed the basis for the character Baby Suggs, the un-churched folk preacher of black self-love, in her novel Beloved.

The novel and the movie communicated to everyone who loved their family the anguish of enslavement, of knowing your children were not yours at all. What places The Origin of Others in this very moment of twenty-first-century American history—a moment that, sadly, bears much in common with earlier awful times—are two texts Morrison quotes at length.

One is a testimony of lynchings committed in America in the early twentieth century. The testimony of lynchings continues for the better part of two pages. This is only a small portion of it:. Ed Johnson, lynched on the Walnut Street Bridge, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by a mob that broke into jail after a stay of execution had been issued.


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Laura and L. Nelson, mother and son, accused of murder, kidnapped from their cell, hanged from a railroad bridge near Okemah, Oklahoma. Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three circus workers accused of rape without any evidence, lynched in Duluth, Minnesota; no punishment for their murders. Raymond Gunn, accused of rape and murder, doused with gasoline and burned to death by a mob in Maryville, Missouri. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands.

Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. To these, I would add a list currently circulating on Facebook of police shootings for which no one has been convicted of murder. As of late summer, the list looked like this, but, as we know, it is tragically subject to additions at any time:. And in doing so, they address a persistent theme in the writing of two other authors who play a part in The Origin of Others , one by name, one as a presence.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me , the phenomenally best-selling personal statement in the guise of a letter to his teenage son, provides the foreword to The Origin of Others. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Born in , Baldwin serves as the intellectual ancestor to both Morrison and Coates, as tribune of the themes of violence against black people and of the process by which European immigrants came to see themselves as white people in America.

Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of your own understanding! The genius of the Enlightenment was its insistence on self-understanding. It demands a shift from heteronomy to autonomy, from status to contract, from inherited obligation to self-generated action. That is the original and universal vocation of humankind. We are—each of us as individuals—intended to define ourselves, to direct our own actions, to be unrestricted in presenting our understanding of things and our concerns in the public realm, to pursue our own life projects in a way we have determined is best fit for that purpose.

Central to the modern age, so understood, is what I have designated as the principle of subjectivity. That is, human beings are best defined as individual subjects, creative centers of thought and action. The principle of subjectivity is the impetus infusing the emergence of modern science and technology, modern philosophy, modern economics, and modern democracy.

In keeping with the central spirit of modernity, in all of these realms of human thought and action, we are to be free to pursue our personal course, unencumbered by forces and constraints external to our own individual consideration. This is the spirit that permeates the classical affirmations of human rights during the eighteenth century, affirmations that are elegant in their vision and in their appeal. Yet, however much those affirmations betokened a revolutionary mood at the time and have provided moral leverage for oppressed peoples in subsequent generations, they had, as they played out in institutional and ideological form, a perverse effect.

Liberal democracy has favored political freedom and the self-determination of nations, but through its imperialist reach and sophisticated military technology it has subjugated other nations and whole classes of people. Capitalism, with its ideology of free enterprise, eschewed regulatory constraints and government control, but all the better to transform citizens into consumers and employees. We are instructed to think for ourselves.

We are authorized to act for ourselves. We are therefore led to consider all things that surround us—nonhuman and human—as instruments for our manipulation, even those things that may claim their own subjectivity. That is at least one way to characterize the flaw in the dominant character of the modern age, a flaw that is addressed by the principle of internal relations which, with its intersubjectivist turn, invites a radical reconstruction of how we are to live our lives together. It is by invoking that principle that the Earth Charter Movement is a summons to a new beginning in human history.

Identity and Alterity I have imputed to the Earth Charter Movement a principle of internal relations as its normative response to the crisis of alterity, even though the specific language of internal relations is not appropriated in the charter itself. But the principle, I suggest, is implicit in key passages of the charter. I am assuming that, whatever else the motifs of interdependency and community are intended to signify in this context, they convey the conviction that no form of life within the evolving universe—including human life—exists in utter isolation.

While, institutionally and culturally, the interdependence of peoples has become increasingly dense over the past century, yet on a profound ontological level, interdependency has always been and shall always be an inescapable feature of our being, indeed, of life itself. We are all, in some sense, caught up in an interactive process through which the destiny of any one entity is contingent to some degree, however negligible, on the impingement of all other entities within the existing world.

We are communal beings. At this point, we must be cautious. Interdependency is our lot. But interdependency does not in itself detract from our individuality. Rather it sets the context for our individuality. It provides the stuff of our experience and the setting for our agency. We are communal beings, but we are also solitary beings, capable of inexpressible joy and immense suffering, capable as well of contributing in distinctive and irreplaceable ways, positively and negatively, to the lives of others. That is a judgment we must explore further on.

For the moment, however, we should observe how this understanding of relatedness appears belied by everyday experience which, at first glance, might be more appropriately characterized by metaphors of conflict and opposition than by a seemingly bland principle of universal interdependency. We are confronted in our everyday experience with a politics of difference.

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In that politics of difference, our most vivid identities, whether or not fully acknowledged as such, are located in groups. Iris Marion Young distinguishes groups from associations. Where associations are formed by individuals as they agree to gather together to fulfill some objective, groups are constitutive of individuals.

At least in the initial impact on individuals, they are not so much chosen as they are given. As given, they set their mark on the individual. More generally, groups impress their members with a past, a present, and a future, that is, a history of what has been; a way of thinking, feeling, and acting in the moment; and an anticipation of what is to come. Each of these identities positions us in the conflux of events.

Each of them as a social construction separates us from and sets us over against others. Our subjectivity is merged with a very particularistic group identity. In this understanding of the politics of difference, some form of the principle of internal relations make sense. We are in our several identities—whether delineated by forces outside our immediate control or designed in part by our own creative powers—not simply individuated beings. We are joined with others at the roots of our self-understanding.

We are embedded within an ongoing community or cluster of overlapping communities. Granting that such communities are not static—they are susceptible to influence and change—nonetheless they tend to dominate our understanding and our intentions, even blinding us to alternative possibilities. In that sense the politics of difference is compatible with some form of a concept of internal relations.

Yet these communities are bounded. The identities they impose entail a line of demarcation between us and them, self and other: bourgeois and proletariat; black and white; woman and man; straight and gay; Asian and Western; imperial power and colonized people. The identities are, in a word, oppositional. Their articulation signals a politics of struggle captured—in the language of subordinate groups—in categories of domination and liberation. In this politics of struggle among oppositional identities, each party tends to view the other as threat—a threat to be avoided, or perhaps where thought useful controlled, or in the extreme annihilated.

The dynamics of contemporary institutional and cultural life are, unfortunately, representative of this form of the politics of difference or, as sometimes termed, the politics of identity. Whether the politics of difference belies the principle of universal interdependency, however, depends on how it is construed on a more fundamental level of comprehension. From a separatist perspective, as in a Hobbesian-like understanding of the world, that principle of universal interdependency is but a description of how events might turn out over the course of life, an eventuality to be celebrated if the other is a resource but resisted if the other remains a threat.

From a comprehensive relational perspective, on the other hand, that principle of universal interdependency is an affirmation about the very condition of life. We are correlative beings. On the contrary, it can be taken as a keen demonstration of it. The politics of difference emerges precisely because of the connectedness of groups that stand in tension with each other. Subordinate groups engage in oppositional politics because they are caught up in a network of relations which has an oppressive effect on them.

The unity of opposites, we are taught in the logic of dialectics, is a basic principle of our being. We cannot escape our interdependency even when that interdependency is delimiting or destructive in its impact. But we can, within the limitations of our power as agents, transform its quality. That is the proper intent of oppositional politics: not to exploit or to subdue the other, but to press toward reciprocity, a quality of interaction through which self and other, respectful of their radical differences, are, in their togetherness, ever more deeply enlivened.

That is, after all, the meaning of friendship, is it not?

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More generally, reciprocity as a quality of interaction is an indication of the character of the overarching good from a relational standpoint. Our identity as social beings is such, the genuine good of the self and genuine good of the other are not antithetical, they are conjunctive. Value is situated, he avers, in the richness of life. Richness is a function of several features: availability of resources, degree of accomplishment, diversity of functions, breadth of integration, generosity toward others.

Richness is a matter of creative participation within context. It entails a give-and-take between subject and other. It involves receptivity of surroundings and contribution to the ongoing adventure of life. It is a quality of interplay between individuality and interdependency. It assumes that each entity is, in some degree, an agent, but a social agent whose subjectivity is constitutively related to context.

How well richness—the intrinsic value of things—is promoted is a function of both agent and context. In sum, the good of life is the promotion, so far as possible in any given circumstance, of qualitative attainment and the enjoyment of that process. The things that surround us are not adequately understood as merely instruments for our manipulation; they are, with us, participants in a common enterprise. Sociality and Ecology From its beginnings, the Earth Charter Movement has made a deliberate effort to conjoin two broad questions of public policy whose directions have tended to diverge, sometimes with seeming irreconcilability: the social question and the ecological question.

A supposition underlying the Earth Charter Movement is that these two questions of public policy bear on each other and that a satisfactory response to either one must address the other as well. In its approach to that task, the Movement, on a deeper level, repudiates a dominant tendency in the modern understanding of the world to sustain a principle of radical bifurcation between realms of history and nature. In contrast, according to the underlying cosmology of the Earth Charter Movement, as I comprehend it, concepts of history and nature cannot, in the final analysis, be separated from each other.

History and nature, distinguishable for some reasons, are in reality fused.

What is Otherness?

That is, Earth, the category which occupies pride of place in the Earth Charter, designates a holistic process through which humans and nonhumans, in their interactions with each other, assume ever new shapes as they proceed from past to future. That holistic process may properly be considered as, at one and the same time, history and nature. For that underlying reason, the social question and the ecological question must be conjoined in a way whose full political and economic implications have yet to be fully explored. The social question emerged in the West in the nineteenth century in response to the effects of the industrial revolution on the working class, although in its connotations and ramifications, the question was pertinent to other dimensions of our common life as well.

It was, in its furthest reach as I would construe it, a factor in movements to abolish slavery in North America, to secure political and economic rights for women, and to emancipate colonized peoples throughout the world. But in its primary formulation it was directed to the experience of workers. Under conditions of industrial capitalism, society was increasingly split into classes, particularly, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels asserted, into two dominant classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat—those who controlled the means of production and those who, for the sake of sustenance, were increasingly forced to participate in an economic system in which their agency was subservient to the direction and benefit of others.

Conditions of life for the working class were degrading and inhumane. The working day was long. Wages were low. Risks of injury were high. Young children were pressed into the workplace. Unemployment was common. Worker organizations were resisted often with violence. Out of such working conditions, the labor union movement emerged, driven by a concern for social justice.

That concern, on its most immediate level, was meliorative, seeking to soften, in very particular ways, the everyday sufferings of labor. On a deeper level, the concern for social justice was redistributive, intending to effect a thoroughgoing reallocation of the benefits and burdens of the economic system, gaining for the working class a more equitable proportion of economic resources and political power.

At each of these levels—meliorative, redistributive, and reconstructive, the concern for social justice has persisted and expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, directed to all those structures—patriarchy, racial and ethnic supremacy, colonialism and neocolonialism, heterosexism—whose oppressive forms have a constrictive and dehumanizing effect on the aspirations of subordinated peoples. As a critical reaction to prevailing economic and political structures, the social question is properly perceived as transformative, even revolutionary, in its intent.

But however revolutionary, it is, taken by itself, thoroughly anthropocentric. It ignores nonhuman forms of life save insofar as they constitute an obstacle or a resource for specifically human ends. It may, out of concern for human rights, seek to modify and constrain productive processes in particular ways, but may well promote ever increasing exploitation of natural resources out of an interest in increasing productivity and capital accumulation.

As such, in its anthropocentric character, the social question stands in fundamental conflict with the deepest drive and purposes of the ecological question. The ecological question, although presaged in earlier decades, became prominent only in the nineteen sixties, a decade astir with multiple movements of intense concern about conditions of life throughout the world.

The question in its contemporary form emerged in response to a double recognition: that prevailing practices of economic production and consumption were effecting widespread deterioration of the natural world and that nonrenewable resources of the earth on which those practices depend were suffering from rapid depletion.

Otherness (Black Mustang's Frozen Moon Jam)

This double recognition had a shocking effect on the consciousness of important segments of the public, provoking the creation of numerous associations in lands across the world, together forming what is often termed, singularly but inaccurately, the environmental movement. It sparked the formulation of theories about limits to growth. It provoked new thinking about the meaning and status of nature. It induced points of opposition by radical ecological groups and concerned neighborhoods against the policies and practices of corporate industries and governments.

It occasioned legislative initiatives protective of the environment and restrictive of industrial action. It exacerbated tensions between poor and rich and between indigenous peoples and modernizers. But the environmental movement, seemingly united in its concern with doing justice in some sense to the realm of nature, is in fact deeply divided in its understanding of what that means. It ranges from groups primarily committed to economic progress modified only as necessary for the conservation of natural resources to groups committed almost exclusively to the integrity of ecological systems and, for that reason, strongly opposed to any but the most minor forms of human intervention.

From the former perspective, nature has instrumental value. From the latter perspective, nature possesses intrinsic value which, in the extreme, means that appropriation of the things of nature is inherently exploitative and must be minimalized. Where the former perspective is anthropocentric, the latter is biocentric. To each, however, from its own perspective, the ecological question—how to reshape social policies and practices out of concern for the environment—is a significant moral desideratum. In their origins, the social question and the ecological question, particularly in their more far-reaching forms, emerged in response to agonizing experiences of domination, exploitation, suffering.

They were formulated out of a keen sense of something having gone awry and of the urgent need for change. On the surface, however, given their different origins and the specific kinds of suffering to which they were responding, they appear divergent in their primary foci if not inconsistent in their respective aims. Yet their divergence is, at least in part, a result of their common way of comprehending the world according to which history and nature are separate realms of being even where they may happen to impinge on each other.

Precisely at this point, the Earth Charter Movement—resting, as I have asserted, on a principle of internal relations—intends to direct us toward an alternative way of comprehending the world. Earth, in this new comprehension of the cosmos, is not a symbol for nature as a realm separate from history. It is more exactly a symbol for the entire interactive community of life—human and nonhuman—as it proceeds from past to future. It is an effort to lure us beyond the boundaries of anthropocentricity and biocentricity toward ecocentricity.

That is, what is central is neither humanity as such nor vitality as such, but that creative process in which varying forms of life and agents collaborate in the shaping of ever new moments. That is the construct through which the social question and the ecological question are properly merged, requiring the Earth Charter Movement explicitly to embrace concerns for ecological integrity, economic equity, and participatory democracy as belonging intimately together.

Given this new direction, whose full import has yet to be developed, the Earth Charter Movement constructs a setting in which central themes from two ecological traditions that have often been at odds with each other, Deep Ecology and Social Ecology, 13 might be interfused. Relatedly, the Deep Ecology Platform affirms an embracing understanding of intrinsic value:. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves. Who we are and what is of importance cannot be understood apart from our embeddedness in a thick complex of interrelatedness that encompasses the total sphere of life and that is part and parcel of our identity and destiny. The genius of Social Ecology, for its part, is its insistence that the ecological crisis is rooted in the social crisis.