13/03/2013

Communicating With the Other

               Globalization and the Internet appear to have made the world a smaller place. Planes easily take us to faraway places in a matter of hours; a tap of the computer keys puts us in contact with people thousands of kilometers away. Technically, the world has become more interconnected. 

               But is this really so?


                 In rereading the Bulgarian moral historian Tzvetan Todorov’s fabulous retelling of the conquest of America, it is impressive to see how the Spanish conquistadores reacted to discovering the New World and its inhabitants. The traditional answer to why they went was that they sought Gold, Glory and Gospel, although not always in that order. What makes Todorov’s analysis of the confrontation between the Old World and the New World so perceptive and relevant today are the different forms of reactions. Yes there were horrible massacres and enslavement - the total number of Indians killed is estimated to surpass all future genocides combined - but one Spaniard spent 40 years writing down the local language. Several of the “conquerors” stayed in the Caribbean. Many of the natives welcomed the Spaniards with various attempts at communication and understanding. And all of this before the formal field of anthropology was established.

                Todorov invites us to reflect on our relation to the Other. Listening to Geneva politicians talk about the imposition of foreigners and foreign labor in the Canton reminds me of the futile efforts by the United States Government to keep immigrants out by constructing an electric fence along a thousand kilometer border with Mexico. The Red Cross Museum in Geneva recently had a wonderful exhibit of walls as artificial boundaries dividing countries around the world. Globalization and the Internet are occurring at the same time walls are being built to physically distinguish those inside and outside. Any semblance of global interconnectedness is belied by an increase in ethnic conflicts and intra-state wars. We cannot say that the world has become closer and closer when we continue to construct barriers.

                Physical barriers are representations of radical separations. Todorov’s examples of the meeting between the two worlds are very similar to where we are today. When I used to leave the subway in the morning to work in Harlem – at that time a community of roughly 800,000 mostly African-Americans – I was often greeted by the phrase “A visitor from another planet”. Indeed, there was some truth to that.

                Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain to discover the Indies, and by chance discovered a new world across the Atlantic Ocean. When they came across the local population, incorrectly calling them Indians, they were confronted with something totally foreign. In spite of technological changes, we are confronted today by many things foreign as well. How we react to that experience, defining our relation to the Other, clarifies our assumptions about who we are.

 

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