woensdag 9 september 2015

Compassion or Competition

Last week the frontpage of my newspaper presented an article by Marli Huijer under the title: “Try to imagine: you fight for air in a refrigerator”.  With me this headline generated the following thought: before I let all kinds of suggestions from others in response to the refugee crisis foist upon me, I want to elucidate for myself this kind of admonitions and exhortations.

In Huijer’s article I come across the following exhortations, whether or not interconnected: feel the proximity of the refugees; remember that you could have been one of them yourself, make yourself an idea of the situation; identify with the refugees. Below I try to unravel for myself what I think of each of those admonitions.

1.Feel the proximity. “That refrigerator-truck could as well have stood close to us around the corner on the highway. Austria, that’s European soil. Such proximity makes we are even more addressed in our responsibility. Our commitment is increased. We realize: we could ourselves have been it.” This passage follows the observation by Huijer that already earlier we were shocked by reports about boats and other dramas that took place outside the European continent.

I do agree with Huijer that physical proximity of misery touches you stronger than when it is farther away. Note in this connection that such an observation also works the other way: the further away the sorrow, the less we feel accountable. So there is no absolute responsibility on our side for refugees, closeness counts.

Furthermore, if you’re talking about proximity as a factor that counts, then this immediately also implies cultural proximity. That kind of closeness will count as well. Which can, very consistently, again work both ways: we are not waiting for more imports of Islamic fundamentalism or anti-Semitism. But perhaps we dó sympathize with critical, emancipated Middle Eastern citizens who are fed up with the backwardness of their governments.

2. Consider that you could have been it yourself. “Nobody wants to imagine to choke as a refugee in a truck, but you just have to imagine ... We realize: we could have been there ourselves.”

In this motivation to imagine what refugees go through, a certain sense of reciprocity and enlightened self-interest resounds. Something like: we might also once find ourselves in such a pitiable situation. If we help them now, we may hope that we will also be helped then by others. By the way, there is nothing wrong with this argument.

3. Identify yourself with the refugees: “We are able to identify with other people. That we can have compassion for the other, proceeds therefrom; we are rather similar.”

I think that’s true. When you recognize yourself in someone else that máy evoke  compassion. But, as the philosopher René Girard keeps emphasizing tirelessly,  recognizing the other as yourself can also trigger competition and mimetic desire: I want the same things and safety as the other, or rather I want to avoid for myself the insecurity which I see another is experiencing. Properly functioning mirror neurons work both ways: it can lead to competition and fencing off of what the other person wants from you; and it can lead to compassion.

This observation is consistent with the two camps that Huijer sees arise in the Netherlands. One camp is driven by compassion and wants to help but does not know how. The other camp is afraid of being eclipsed by what is coming down upon us. “It is up to the politicians to deal with it”, Huijer says. That last thought I might find the most convincing, but also the least spectacular.

Huijer’s other thoughts leave me, after the above weighing, in a state of moral confusion, coupled with the unpleasant feeling of being addressed somewhat moralistically.

Fortunately European politics, with the joint initiatives of Germany, Britain and France over the past week, now get some movement. That is – apart from the grand scale spontaneous reception of refugees, whether or not driven by mirror neurons – is a good thing, I think.

Also see Where do universal values bring us? and Levinas and Empathy