Meeting the Other – Question of one who is Home-less

Living in large metropolitan cities is not just a difference in size, compared to villages and towns that are still to be found at the countryside. There are more people.

More people means more houses, more suffering, more joy, more making love, more fighting over jobs, more food, more sewers. (It also means more books, more theatres, more pie, more languages, more colours, more… life.)

We Take (you) away from Here

But is also means more alienation. For me it means also the need to get away, to be alone. Which is sometimes easier in a city full of strangers, than in a forest in which you’re the only person alive. (Something to do with being confronted with oneself, hearing one’s own thoughts, etc. See also this article on why people prefer electric shocks over being alone with their own thoughts…)

But even in cities, one is being confronted with oneself, precisely because of the alteriority of the people one is surrounded with. There are moments, where the Other Faces you. And this leaves one utterly vulnerable, and destitute of understanding. There is one group of people who knows this very well, and who are making a living out of it. By facing the people around them, approaching them, and consciously crossing the border of anonymity, they touch their victim and mirror their estrangement from themselves. And they know this is not a pleasant situation for the one who is running away from all authenticity that could perhaps be. So they offer an easy resolution. One is able to buy off this uneasiness. In return, one gets nothing. One is left alone, or in an extreme case, one ends up with some newspaper.

Of course, I talk about a specific subgroup of homeless people.

One encountered me this morning. Of course, he didn’t know I wasn’t impressed by him sitting in a wheelchair. He didn’t know, that the sense “can I ask you something”, has a very specific meaning for a philosopher. I thought about his question, asking me whether he could ask me something. I was tempted. I like questions, I find them an important means to come to a new understanding of the world and the life we live. But this was already a question he was asking me. Why postpone the asking of a question, by positing the question whether it is okay to ask something.

There are of course reasons why one can postpone or prolong human interaction. Most probable reason in this case is the bonding of us, two people bound by interaction. By choosing to giving him permission to ask me something, I already had to acknowledge him as a person, as a fellow other, one whose face I couldn’t say ‘no’ to. This pre-question is some kind of trick, to make me feel connected and to have to answer the following question positively. Or negatively, but that would mean that I would break off the human connection just established.

Of course, I wasn’t sure what he was going to ask. He could ask for directions, he could ask to marry me, he could ask me for a smile. (He could have just read Blanchot, and ask “I’m afraid; would you accompany me for a moment?” (The Step Not Beyond, p.60)) But being primed by being asked this question hundreds of times before, knowing the humiliation that follows – for I would not only refuse to give money, I will also have taken up his time by allowing him to connect to me – I said: “No.”

Of course, I had already stopped walking at this point, pondering over the meaning of the pre-question and the best response. While looking at him – for where else to look, but to the one who questions? My “no” made him respond: “But you don’t even know what I was going to ask, you Sau.” ‘Sau’ being a very rude thing to say, something like ‘bitch’, although literally related to the word ‘sour’.

I walked on. Happy I had limited my human connection to a minimum, for this offensive word to not touch me (at least, not too much). And sad, because another instance, another possibility of meeting the other, was forever lost.

ps. It’s good to note that asking for money, is not a question but a request. Just saying.

Violence at the Playground

On this birthday of Sophie Scholl, having just moved to a country drenched in a history of injustice, it’s time to reflect. On the present.

Sophie Scholl

Normally I speak up if injustice is done. I try, make an effort. As justice is something I value highly. Having said that, this doesn’t mean I see all the injustice that happens around me, by not recognising it, or perhaps by being its own instigator.

But a few days ago, I was confronted by some clear injustice, and I did nothing. I stood there watching the story unfold. I did nothing, even though the victim looked at me, clearly expecting me to say something. I didn’t.

There are of course reasons why I didn’t. Rational reasons. Which don’t make me feel any better about myself. I was in a new surrounding, I had the responsibility over another small boy who I wanted for sure not to get involved. I made a judgement mistake, and once I realised that, I could only relate to the fear they felt at that time, and I was simply afraid. Afraid to act out.

So perhaps this is a tale about how wrong one can be, judging others, judging oneself.

Martin Luther King

I was at a playground, playing basketball with the boy I was looking after. He wanted to play soccer, but the soccer area was in use by two boys who were a little bigger than him, and they were using a lot of strength in practising aiming at the goal, so I could understand he didn’t want to join them.

There was also a group of little girls, who also wanted to play at the soccer area. They asked the slightly bigger boys, but they said they were still playing, and the girls had to wait. The girls left. The girls came back, asking how long it would take. The boys felt their power, and laughed at each other, said they would play however long they would liked. At this point, I thought those boys were kind of mean, but those girls would have to figure it out themselves, or negotiate to share the area, which they didn’t. They started whining a little and irritating the boys. (You know how girls can be.) Of course the boys didn’t buckle out.

Later two other little boys came, with one of their dads, and they asked if they could join the bigger boys. I foresaw some problems, as there was clearly an age difference, and if the bigger boys would continue to using all their strength, clearly someone would get hurt. To my surprise, the bigger boys agreed, and they formed teams and had a really nice game. The bigger boys came to the little boy I was looking after, and asked him if he also wanted to join. He didn’t want to, instead continued to watch their game. They asked a couple more times. He continued to refuse. When I asked him later why he didn’t want to join, he said he didn’t like how they spit on the ground. He knew some soccer players do that, but he didn’t like it. I agreed with him, and we continued to watch their game.

But then. A father game, with a girl on his arm. He started talking to the two boys who were there from the beginning. He was very aggressive, telling them it was not okay to spit in someone’s face. He walked up to them, started threatening telling their parents what they had done. The boys replied they had not and never spit in anyone’s face. The father said his daughter had said they did. That they should man up and admit to what they had done. That they were sissies for not admitting. He walked even closer to them, saying he would spit in their face to show them what it was like. The boys looked at me, saying they really hadn’t done anything.

That was the moment I should have said something. But being both so amazed by this grown-up man who was so ridiculously collecting spit in his mouth, threatening the boys to spit in their face. Boys who couldn’t have been older than about 12 years old.

The young boys didn’t become violent. They collected their things, said goodbye to the other boys, thanking them for playing with them, and they left.

They were the adults there.

They were extremely well-behaved.

They were of Turkish background.

Das Deutsche Technikmuseum

Een aantal buizen gaat op en neer, drijft een gevaarte aan welke met behulp van tandwielen en andere tastbare zaken een groot wiel aandrijft. Een grote groep mensen staat er naar te kijken. Het is vijf over twaalf, om twaalf uur was stipt de voorstelling begonnen. Een man drukte op een knop, en het grote gevaarte kwam in beweging. Er zijn al vijf minuten voorbij. De menigte blijft kijken. Ik kan het niet opbrengen om te proberen de kinderen in mijn gebrekkige Duits uit te leggen dat het om een stoommachine gaat. Ik verbaas me over de hoeveelheid woorden die ik in het Nederlands al niet kan bereiken.

De kinderen zijn inmiddels druk bezig met elkaar, en het hekje, dat hen scheidt van de grote uitvinding die de wereld heeft veranderd, waarvan een deel los zit. De volwassenen kijken nog leidzaam naar het gevaarte. Er is niets te zien. Een man naast me verzamelt zijn moed en probeert het toch, heeft het over een grote pomp en mompelt verder nog iets voor zich uit, wetende dat zijn kinderen toch niet luisteren. Ik kijk vergenoegd naar de machine, die iedereen buiten beschouwing laat.

Even later komen we bij een gedeelte over luchtvaart. Oude vliegtuigen hangen in de lucht. Terwijl de kinderen twee uur zoet zijn met een tweetal draaideuren die het ene van het andere gedeelte van het museum scheidt, luister ik naar een documentaire die persoonlijke geschiedenissen van piloten uit de Luftwaffe beschrijft. Opmerkelijk, hoe elke mogelijke zwarte stip op Duits verleden door zorgvuldig gekozen woorden wordt verlicht. Het waren mensen. Het was oorlog. Dat soort dingen. Een man die naast me zit knikt me enthousiast toe, fluistert me “interessant” toe. Ik knik terug.