Far-right anti-migrant protests in Germany lead to violence. In Italy and Austria, the political counterparts of these protestors are on the rise. Meanwhile, Steve Bannon has merrily embarked upon a European tour. This is the tone of the news I return to, after almost two years away from the European union. On television, I see a young well-to-do German in an affluent-looking town explain how migrants are the bane of the nation. In his eyes, they are a scourge, guilty of all crimes, even those not yet planned, far less committed.
Now it’s easy, perhaps almost commonplace, to conclude that the problem here lies in the warped vision these racists and haters have of their target group; that the error lies in their perception, their view, the image they hold, of foreigners, migrants, or refugees. Certainly the migrants the young militant German are present only in his imagination. They are, in the way he describes them, a mental construct. The groups ostracized and discriminated against by militants and far-right supporters do not actually exist – at least, not in conformity with the image their opponents decry. In this sense, yes, the hatred and indignation arise from a very subjective, inaccurate and at times even erroneous, perception of the other. However, I am convinced that on a deeper level, whenever we feel inconvenienced, or even threatened, by another group of people, the error lies not in how we perceive them, but rather in how we see ourselves.
When we can see ourselves as who we truly are, beyond age, gender, race, country of citizenship, nationality, social status, family position and so on, it becomes difficult to see others as so very different from us. To put it slightly differently, when we really understand our true, fundamental nature, it is impossible to see others as truly “other”. We realize that each human is simply a reflection of the same underlying life – in essence, we are all one and the same.
I apologize to those who may feel this is too esoteric, a spiritual platitude, perhaps even a rather far-fetched proposition. So allow me to step back from this philosophical platform for a moment, and suggest a very simple example. Let us suppose I am a staunch and fiercely loyal Arsenal fan. To me, a Chelsea fan will be a polar opposite, perhaps even a mild enemy. He and I belong to separate, clearly defined camps. He will be different, definitely “other”. I may also sense varying degrees of “otherness” with other clubs, depending on the extent of our rivalry, on how much of a threat they pose to my team, and therefore to the happiness of my fellows. Now suppose, in contrast, I have no interest in football whatsoever, and support no team. I would potentially be able to get on with any clan, to mingle with fans from any city or club without prejudice. Indeed, I might not even specially feel that the team you support particularly defines who you are. We are in far more amorphous territory here, without harshly drawn lines. In more general terms, the more strongly a group or community asserts its identity based on certain traits or criteria, the more strongly it will feel its difference with, and separateness from, the rest of the world. But of course, a group or community is composed of connected inviduals, and no group dynamic can exist without originating in the thoughts and feelings of the individuals that make it up.
If I don’t see myself as anything or anyone in particular, it is hard to position myself as better, worse, or all that different from other people. At the very least, the lines will be blurred. If my sense of self, of identity, is derived first and foremost from a sense of being, rather than from being something or someone in particular, then I am not positioning myself as a definite entity that stands in contrast to other solid and more or less compatible entities. In essence, even a terrorist will not appear fundamentally so very different from myself. I might see them as an individual whose “wiring” has gone wrong, just as a healthy cell of the body can become cancerous. But the origin of the cell, the source of its life, remains the same.
The point I hope I have succeeded in making is that when observing how we perceive others, be they groups, societies, or individuals, it is both worthwhile and valuable to reverse our gaze, and consider what this perception reflects back to us about how we identify ourselves. Unfortunately, those who could benefit the most from a little investigation or self-enquiry of this nature are the least likely to engage in such an exercise. For such introspection would require a degree of conscious awareness of our inner processes which even the most outwardly tolerant among us may at times lack.
Like beauty, an eyesore is largely in the eye of the beholder. But there are times when the beholder may need to look within, and question how he sees himself.