What is our moral obligation to the “Other”? First is the necessity of admitting that there is such a thing as “Other.” A lot of people have major difficulty with this. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination. Maybe it’s the possibility that the “Other” might be “better” rather than just different.
Second principle might be that the “Other” must be allowed to set his/her own terms for existence and even preference. But that leads to the third, which is that the real need for a morality is the interface between mutual “Others,” so they don’t destroy each other. This would be a morality of accommodation rather than domination, at least according to my own morality, which is a morality of multiplicity and situation. I am no Levitican.
Deep under morality is survival as a motive for action. Survival is on two levels. One is that of the individual, whether oyster or author, and the other is on the level of the whole group from family to species. If a species evolves into something with a different but better prospect of survival, is that actually survival? What is the morality of evolution? It must be dynamic. The most final and inarguable criterion for a moral stance is whether it is survival-based, but is there a case to be made for something that must be lost in the name of evolution to make a “better” world? Can “progress” or “improvement” be defined in advance, or must it always be seen in retrospect?
I ask because I fear that our present “culturome” in many aspects (education, medicine, trade) is reinforcing the least likely paths to defending the Other. In fact, we seek to eliminate or at least confine the Other. But too often all we really do is empower the toughest, least forgiving Others, the least compassionate, the most greedy, the most insensitive, the most devious. So it seems.
My conviction is that those qualities give a short term advantage, but in the end they are fatal. First, they risk destroying the foundational matrix of life because of eliminating so much in the name of their own benefit. (Eliminate all the predators, become overrun with prey.) As a friend of mine with fungal pneumonia was told by his doctor, “We could easily destroy your fungal invaders. The trouble is that it would also destroy your lungs. To detect and protect the fine line between those two is what makes medicine difficult.”
In modern times we CAN tell one from the other. In some primitive places the only way to defend the village from some afflictions was to destroy the afflicted individual, to make them Other and therefore expendable, the way we do our enemies in war even when they are our brothers. I write about sex quite a lot because it is so entwined with survival. A morality that legitimates rape is likely to encourage a level of violence that will not allow the resulting infants to survive. The rapacity of some opportunistic businesses (do I dare mention publishing or should I just say drug trade?) will erode both the generators of the material and its consumers.
Dictatorship is always doomed. Even if there are mechanisms for maintaining dominance beyond one lifetime, for instance genetic succession, dictatorships cannot eliminate every deviation, every defiance, every creativity without killing the society they rule. This is the lesson of the former USSR, for one. By killing the individuals who dissent, authorities end up making living dead of the group. They are so blinkered by the limits of their own lives that they never get hold of the “big picture” nor can they predict the forces that come from some completely unexpected source, like climate change. Any geologist could tell us that climates do not remain stable for long, except in terms of human life history -- unless it the humans themselves who make the changes. Which is not to say that democracies aren’t prone to stifle, eliminate, and deny just as dictators do. Ask the whistleblowers and ask why they are emerging now.
As I typed this, the email binged and this story arrived:
“Earlier this year, Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, president of a prominent Indian rationalist organization, the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), or Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, was killed for his efforts to get an anti-superstition law passed. Like other movements of organized rationalism in India, MANS sought to promote scientific knowledge and combat the influence of black-magic practitioners and self-styled godmen. Although his assailants have not yet been apprehended, Dr. Dabholkar (b. 1945) received significant threats from hard-right groups who claimed to be defending religious sensibilities.”
Stories posted on “Sightings” at the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School are archived at http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings (The rest of this article will be at the site soon. I’m on a mailing list so got it early.) India IS a democracy. There are people in this town who would be on the side of the assassin, though they would probably not consider murder. India is the homeland of a key pacifist, Ghandi, but he is not well-known in Valier. Even American Indians can be “Other” here, except for the citizens who ARE Native American.
An assassin is a free-lance dictator, imposing his/her will on the rest of the world but particularly any individual who defies him. (Or her.) The advantage and disadvantage of the assassin is s/he is so identifiable, so personal, that s/he can be caught and punished. A movement cannot. But each can act on behalf of the other, one can justify the other, both can “justify” government suppression even to the level of fire-bombing we watch on television news. (Waco, MOVE)
What intrigues me is what might happen when two Other-from-each-Others find a creative meiotic way of melting together. Maybe that’s why I married a man twice my age. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to a Montana reservation in the first place. Maybe that’s why I’ve maintained a careful relationship with a group no one even wants to admit exists: young boys doing sexwork either because it’s the only way they can survive or because they have come to be shaped by that life. These guys are resourceful, tenacious, funny, and appealing -- sometimes very beautiful in part or in whole, separate or in a group.
But I don’t want to see them as subjects for National Geographic specials or for depth psych analysis of human potentials. For me, an old woman in small town, they have an intensity and outrage about life that keeps me challenging myself to think harder.
And yet, when once I remarked that no one wants to make love to an old woman, they were indignant at my limited experience of life. “We know better!” they said, and I was glad, though it’s not on my agenda. (I’d rather read, which is a very strange idea to them.) I love their freedom from clothing, their ability to move, their tolerance for pain. They revel in physical contact, never fear being goofy or reckless, defy vertigo. You don’t get any more “Other” from them than me.
And yet again, one said he longed to have a grandmother, so I volunteered though I’ll never see this boy, never touch him, only know the idea of him. For moral human beings this is sometimes enough.