Colombo Telegraph

The Origin Of Others

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when, unlike with animals, it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here.  The German word Fremdeln: refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants, usually around the eighth month of life, in which a child develops a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. (It has been found that the fear is triggered more by men than by women; by adults more than by children.) In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”, but this does not throw most of us into some kind of existential despair because we build what I would call bridging relationships: with parents, relations, friends, and through romantic and/or sexual love: titles such as “I is another” and “Call me by your name” come to mind. In the mid-19th century novel, Wuthering Heights, Catherine asserts of Heathcliff that he is more her than she is. And going back in time, John Donne (1572 – 1631) wrote in a poem: you “are the best of me”. There are several other similar statements and, no doubt, in all the languages of the world. But the concern here is not with the single self but with singulars as members of a plural. In other words, how  ‘Others’ see me and those like me as members of a group. What follows is a brief sharing of thoughts arising from reading The Origin of Others. The author, Afro American Toni Morrison, is a Professor Emeritus of Princeton University; winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and of the Pulitzer Prize.

More people believe in race than in the pseudo-science of astrology. I cite from my ‘Race and racism’ (24 March 2014):

Shlomo Sand, himself a Jew, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University, argues in his ‘The Invention of the Jewish People that there is no biological basis for a belief in Jewishness. The book was written in Hebrew and translated into English by the author. (It is as if a Sinhalese professor teaching at a Sri Lankan university were to write a book in Sinhala, not in English, which questioned a fundamental and much-cherished myth of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.) A Jewish “race” is pseudoscience (Shlomo Sand) yet Zionist pedagogy has produced generations who believe wholeheartedly in the racial uniqueness of their nation. (See also Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013.)

Rather than thought controlling our choice of words, our thinking and actions are influenced by words and verbal habits. The result is that often we employ words inaccurately, if not incorrectly: Yeats in his poem, ‘An Acre of Grass’, wrote of the mind being a mechanically consuming mill. Few of us have the strength and courage, the self-detachment and honesty to examine our words, our long-held assumptions and beliefs. Few of us think on new lines. Gavin Evans, in the Guardian newspaper of 2 Mar 2018, writes that individuals often share more genes with members of other races than with members of their own race: rather than speak of race, we should use the phrase “population groups”. As I have suggested in the essay, ‘The term “racism” and discourse’ (included in Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches) race may not exist but racism flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and me. It’s those who are race-minded who think and react in terms of race. We may be told that racism is troglodyte but propagating the scientific truth of human likeness cannot undo the power of racism: Karen and Barbara Fields, Racecraft. On the contrary, group-animosity has increased recently, and not only in the West because, at root, racism has to do with identity-politics. Globalization disregards borders and national infrastructure and there’s a vast migration of peoples: the slaves are leaving the plantations and heading for the mansions of their former slave-masters (Toni Morrison). The ‘Other’ creates a sense of deep insecurity and fear – emotional and psychological states that can, in turn, provoke violence and cruelty. The “tribe”, and success against other tribes, are more important to people than economic success, than even freedom: Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Those at the receiving end of ‘population-group’ hostility are not only seen as being different (they are in several ways) but being different “they” are thought not to be human in the same way as “us”. Race-thinkers assume they are the norm:  the Other goes to define our-self (selves).

Morrison observes that to be American is, for many, to be white. Professor Amy Chua (op. cit.) writes that many African Americans do not feel “American” in the same way that many white Americans take for granted. (More precisely, many African Americans are not allowed to feel fully American.) In other places too where more than one population-group shares geographic space with other groups, the majority will project their identity as subsuming the entire country: for example, “Sri Lanka” equals “Sinhalese Buddhist” (secondly and secondarily, Sinhalese Christians). In turn, exclusion and subordination strengthen, if not create, minority identity. The so-called assimilated Jews of Germany felt their Jewishness was accidental rather than important, much less essential. Several fought and died for Germany in the First World War: ironically, Hugo Gutmann, a senior officer who recommended that Hitler be awarded the Iron Cross, was Jewish. Soon Hitler and the Nazis made it brutally clear that the Jews were Jews and not German. One thinks of the early decades of the 20th century and those Tamils who worked ardently for (what was then) Ceylon’s independence. The following is slightly edited from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.

There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”.  When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranaike, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). Even after the trauma of Standardisation (“racial” quota) in relation to University admission beginning in 1971, and the Draft Constitution of 1972, the All Ceylon Tamil Conference declared, “Our children and our children’s children should be able to say, with one voice, Lanka is our great motherland, and we are one people from shore to shore. We speak two noble languages, but with one voice” (Nesiah, p. 14). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayakam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a U.N.P. candidate.”

Since race-thinking seems ineradicable, there is the temptation to give up but a book such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, despite the title, is not surrender but a call for action. Ignoring race-thinking and practice; pretending they don’t exist, is felt by some to be a tactful, sensitive, gesture but it is finally unhelpful: Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark. Surely, the more hopeless a struggle seems (and the cause just), the greater the honour in not giving up?

There is only one race, the human race; there are no foreigners but only different versions of ourselves (The Origin of Others). 

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