Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fear of the Other

Archaeologists tell us that the earliest human groups were small family-tribes consisting of about 30 to 50 individuals. It was the perfect number to achieve the balance between having the ability to move quickly and being able to defend themselves effectively in the fight for survival. In a sparsely populated world, these small groups rarely came into contact with each other, but when they did, they had to decide how they would react to this Other. Today's world sees many more potential meetings between groups, yet still we must choose how to react when faced with the Other. What kind of attitude should we have towards them? Should we throw ourselves in fury on those people who are different than us, build a barricade to keep them away, or get to know and understand them?

The headlines today are from South Africa, so we can can once again turn the page and know it doesn't affect us. Whether we're reading this in Europe, North America or even Australia we can feel comfortable in the knowledge that we won't have problems like those in the townships of Johannesburg and Cape Town where at least 42 foreigners have been killed in violence aimed at immigrants. The country that has styled itself as the Rainbow Nation, has seen more than 12 days of violence aimed at immigrant groups. It was thought that this kind of thing could only happen in Nigeria, or maybe the Congo, but the home of the Truth and Reconciliation commission has been witness to marauding groups of vigilantes hunting foreigners, burning their homes and even burning people. A spike in Zimbabwean immigration combined with the fact that the economic gains of the past decade haven't been shared equally among the population has led to violence and the worst is yet to come.

Yeah, well it is only an African phenomenon, right? Well, let's take Italy, a country that has a few skeletons in their closet when it comes to xenophobic hysteria, so you'd think they'd have learnt from past mistakes. In fact though, the country is on the brink of beginning a process of deporting Italian citizens because of their Roma heritage. As is often the case when a right wing populist movement wins an election, Berlusconi's party and their coalition partners won partially on a platform based on blaming the Others. Now, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In a scenario supposedly sparked by a 17-year-old Roma girl who supposedly tried to steal someone's baby, the people of Naples have risen up night after night, marching, chanting and burning the homes of the second-class citizen Roma population. What's worse is it seems they've been blocking firefighter's access to the blazes. It's an almost textbook example of directing the populations anger at a scapegoat as the city battles a huge waste collection problem. During the recent election campaign Berlusconi vowed to curb illegal immigrants, describing them as an “army of evil”. The government's response to the recent violence, well quite predictably, more measures to get rid of the "army". Army of evil you say, sounds familiar...

Meanwhile, in America, where they have been busy perfecting the policy of attack over dialogue, they are also embracing the idea of wall building, in this case to keep out the Mexicans. At the same time an election campaign, which could see the election of the first black president, drags on.

Why build a wall when your people need all the exposure to the outside world they can get? It's not to fight terrorists, as construction was begun well before 9/11, in 1994 in fact. It's to keep out the Other. The Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, The Maginot Line, even the rabbit fences of Australia were all overcome by the invaders they were designed to keep out. Over, under, around, through, a wall is just something to be overcome, and they always are. Another doomed barricade will surely be the planned missile shield whose only tactical value seems to be that it pisses the Other off. America has already wasted the past 8 years focusing their response on the first two reactions to the Other, what the world needs more than anything is someone to take up that risky third option, dialogue.

The Other is an easy target when people start getting nervous about their pocketbooks, or worse yet, the hole in their bellies. Throughout our history, mankind has always wavered between the options of war, wall building and dialogue when dealing with this Other. War is hard to justify, the encounter with the Other usually ends tragically with the imposition of one's beliefs on the Other. Wall building only serves to isolate without fixing the problems that lie underneath. In a world where we seem to be moving from a mass society to a new, global society 2.0, interconnectivity is becoming the new world order. Linked more than ever before electronically through communication and physically in terms of transport and movement, how we deal with the Other will only become more important, culturally and economically. A surge in oil prices, a spike in food prices, an economic slow down, fingers will be pointed, swords could be drawn, if we don't talk, who will be next to be blamed?