Contemporary Insights From a Classic Essay
You have to think first in order not to hit back when you feel attacked. Many of us knee-jerk responses to problems large and small; consequently we aggravate rather than de-fuse the situation.
On the other hand we know people who allow every opinion into their heads, if not their hearts, and thus awkwardly support contradictory viewpoints. Yes I am thinking of responses to recent troubles in the Middle East, especially the disastrous events in Libya. Some people called for heads to roll as a result of this: violence for violence. Some people tried to excuse the events on the basis of obscure concepts of justice denied. But there is no excuse for murder, not even honor besmirched.
When confronted with violence, where can we stand without, on one hand, caving in to outrage and lumping people into a blamed class or, on the other hand being so tolerant and open-minded that we lose our balance?
After many years, I read again Jean-Paul Sartre’s brilliant essay, Anti-Semite and Jew. The essay was published in 1946, but Sartre sounds universal notes that have a contemporary ring.
Sartre saw the problem we face with crisp clarity. The Anti-Semite (read Anti-Muslim, Anti-Woman, Anti-you name it) sees only a lumped class of people, not persons, and he characterizes that class or race as evil. No matter how you try to convince him with examples of good people of the defamed group, he reverts to broad judgment. He will say, “Of course there are good members of that group, but as a whole the group is rotten.” Only the group is seen, not the person. We all know people who act like this.
Sartre says the opposite problem comes when people see only the universal (“mankind”) and not the particular characteristics that define the person. So the person exists for you as a universal, but not as a Jew or a Muslim or a French woman. The characteristics that really separate people one from another are denied, and hence one excuses bad behavior without looking at the causes or background that fed into it. We all know people who act like this.
Sartre claims that neither judgment is made in good faith; both are false because neither one sees the actual, real person. Both of these judgments are based on caricatures, not character or earthly condition. In Sartre’s view, the Anti-Semite sees only an evil class whereas the alternative is to see only a universal “human” without those qualifications that make us real and tangible. Neither judgment is correct and the result is the same, no matter which viewpoint: caricature and misunderstanding.
This is partly how we get into wars: we caricature our enemies in order to de-personalize them. I remember the impression the propaganda cartoons of Japanese soldiers made on me as a small boy during World War II; it has taken me a lifetime to overcome them, so deeply did they penetrate my psyche.
On one hand we tend to see people as universals and assimilate them into a homogenous whole; on the other hand we tend to live by racial and other stereotypes.
To move beyond false alternatives, we have to affirm the individual, personal value of others. For people of faith this means seeing each person as a unique image of God. Then we must live by the ethics we claim to embrace, and not forget them when another outrageous incident occurs. We live within limits set by our human condition: death, necessity, and friction with others are always present. We have to choose wisely to live with others harmoniously, and our first choice must be to treat others as real and unique persons.
published 21 Sep 2012