The Slavery of the Same
Conor P. Williams praised Michelle Obama’s DNC speech for combating the ugly belief that the president is something other than a real American. “It was a speech that demanded the president’s recognition as one of ours,” he wrote. “It insisted that Barack Obama’s personal story is also a recognizable, defensible way to live as an American.” I understand why Michelle Obama took this route–why she had to take this route–and yet it saddens me that her response couldn’t overcome the ugliness. As I wrote in the comments, when someone is cast as other, the response regrettably has to be an argument that this person is the same in a relevant way. I wish we could get to a point where otherness is typically celebrated rather than shunned. Ryan Noonan echoed my thoughts: “When I hear things like, ‘Obama is a Muslim atheist!’ (or whatever), my first reaction isn’t really, ‘No he’s not!’ It’s, ‘So what if he is?'” Indeed.
It’s arguably natural to prize sameness, as we seem to be a tribal species, but devotion to sameness, coupled with a disposition of hatred for others and for otherness, has a way of enslaving us. We become captives to an identity to which we will slavishly allow no change. In a word, self-obsessed. This is true of individuals, of communities, of parties, of peoples, and of nations. Being the same–e.g., of the same race, speaking the same language, thinking the same thoughts, feeling the same emotions, having the same attractions, cherishing the same values, worshiping the same gods, or perceiving the same universe–is glorified, even deified, while being other is deemed bad, very bad.
Consequently, one does not have the freedom to be other, only the same. We see this bondage on the playground in school, in politics, in neighborhoods, and even (especially) in houses of worship. Locked in ourselves, or rather in a belief about ourselves, the presence of others who are not the same as us makes us uncomfortable and even fearful, as this presence often involves an appeal calling us to be disposable and responsive. To transcend. To cease to be the same.
The extent to which otherness has a negative connotation suggests that we’re not as free as we’d like to believe. There’s nothing constitutional prohibiting a Muslim or an atheist from seeking and attaining the highest office in the land, but our all-too-common ethos damn well puts up a roadblock. And that, dear friends, is a sign of our enslavement. We’re not truly a free people in a free nation because this pervasive ethos undermines our freedom.
I get why we fear the other. When faced with another who appeals to me, I seem to lose my freedom to be the same as I am, but this freedom is an illusion. It’s not freedom, but the slavery of the same. Gabriel Marcel speculated that the only way of freeing oneself from this self-obsession is “submerging oneself suddenly in the life of another person and being forced to see things through his eyes,” provided “one gives one’s consent to it and does not treat it as a simple intrusion–but as a reality.” And isn’t that the problem? We’re culturally and perhaps naturally inclined to perceive the presence of others as intrusions. Threats to our way of life, to things being the same, the way they should be. And yet true freedom may be attainable only through hospitality and responsiveness to those who appeal to us.
Marcel would’ve said that creative fidelity to these appeals restore us to ourselves. In the other I find myself. Those who would find themselves must first lose themselves in others. More precisely, in the words of Brian Treanor, “this fidelity creates the self in order to meet the demands of fidelity.” The dynamic of the family helps make sense of this. When I married my wife, and more so when we had children, I could no longer do whatever I pleased whenever I wanted. My life was no longer my own; it no longer belonged to me. It was no longer the same. I belonged now to a family, and they to me. Belonging to a family meant responsibility and being at another’s disposal. Mysteriously, these responsibilities helped liberate me from my inclination to self-obsession. I found myself anew and made myself anew in living for them, for others. I became more myself, creating myself anew as I responded to a wife and children not the same as me. Fidelity to my family has meant creatively becoming something other: a father, a husband, a servant, a lover, etc. In this creative fidelity, I found a freedom to love others unconditionally.
I submit that an aspect of love is welcoming and cherishing the other as other. If this is true, then recognizing humanity as a family involves more than seeing us all as the same; it includes acknowledging and prizing our differences, our otherness, our being one and many. In sum, if we’re ever going to overcome our bondage to sameness, it won’t simply be through recognizing the oneness of humanity; it will come also in celebrating the goodness of others being other and their appealing to us to be otherwise than we are.