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New Social Compact

Honor, Ethics, Shame, Guilt and Civilization

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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A shame culture, as the dictionary defines it, involves a society putting “high emphasis on preserving honor” and not being publicly disgraced.” People conform to societal norms, independent form the fact that those norms may be just social customs having little to do with ethics, for the mere fear of being shamed or dishonored publicly.

In contrast to that we have a guilt culture which the dictionary defines as “the internalization of a moral code.” This conformity to a moral code occurs through the free will of man rather than by the public approval of society.

For example, in Homer’s epic The Iliad, what is most valued is honor. To obtain it and the honor that goes with it one must do glorious deeds (such as fighting as a great warrior would), or, more intellectually, be a great orator, speaking well in the assembly and being highly skilled with words; or being a great philosopher like Socrates or Plato or Aristotle. Thus one acquires goods and rewards that publicly signify and represent the honor conferred: medals, certificates, diplomas, honorary titles, etc., attesting to the merits and the superiority of one individual man over another.

In contrast we can observe that in The Histories of Herodotus the social world is less dominated by aspects of shame; more emphasis is placed on guilt. Instead of being publicly shamed into following certain social norms, the individual compels a code of conduct or morality on him/herself, motivated by the guilt she/he feels for not observing society’s condoned behaviors. He may even observe such a code even were he living in isolation from any kind of organized governed society, even absent punishments by the police and the justice system for infractions of the law.

This difference can even be easily observed in the depictions of the gods within those two disparate societies: one based on shame and honor, the other based on guilt and duty to oneself and one’s human nature. For example, in Homer’s Iliad the gods are present everywhere anthropomorphically, with all the weaknesses and defects of men, to be sure, albeit their powers and virtues are superior to man, idealized, so to speak. It’s the modern Nietzchean “Uberman” or the Freudian “Superego” being actualized mythically and poetically. The gods are almost “beyond good and evil,” above moral norms, transcending mere human customs and behavior. Hence the famous Platonic question: are the gods good because they observe the law, or are they good because they are above the law; are they obliged by the law and morality as humans are? But in Herodotus’ Histories, the gods appear very rarely and, rather than being depicted as humans with extraordinary superpowers, are strangely portrayed in ways that would suggest human behavioral norms.

Jumping now to modern times, Giambattista Vico in his New Science (1725) teaches us that a sign of a decaying civilization is the degradation and impoverishment of language, language being a sine qua non of any sort of civilization and indeed an integral part of being human. But there are two other important characteristics which are also part of human nature: the ability to laugh and the ability to feel shame. Here too, when those two characteristics wane, so does civilization.

I’d like to reflect briefly on the latter within the context of our present cultural predicaments. The initial inquiry is this: is shame natural to man or is it something acquired with culture? The answer to that question is crucial since it determines whether or not it is shamelessness that is the acquired trait. To put it another way: could it be that the beauty that we humans are capable of as we live with each other derives from the fact that man is naturally a blushing creature; the only creature in fact capable of blushing?

Plato for one, saw a connection between self-restraint and self-government or democracy, and therefore he saw a political danger in promoting the fullest self-expression or indulgence. That may explain his suspicions of artists in general. For Plato, to live together requires rules and a governing of the passions. Those who live without shame are unruly and unrulable. That is to say, they have lost the ability to restrain themselves by the observation of the rules they collectively have given themselves. One can easily extrapolate from The Republic that tyranny is the natural mode of government for the shameless and the self-indulgent; the government of those who have carried liberty beyond any sort of restraint, be it natural or conventional.

What the ancient Greeks were saying basically, was that democracy, more than any other form of government requires self-restraint to be inculcated through moral education and imposed through laws. Those laws include the manner of public amusement. Indeed, it would be enough to think of Rome under such tyrannical emperors as Caligula or Nero. Those emperors allowed the people to freely indulge themselves with bread and circus, for indulgence did not threaten their rule which did not depend on citizens of good character. The formula is here inverted: the more debased the citizenry, the more they are distracted by pleasurable activities, the safer the tyrant’s rule is.

And here we come to what is obscene and offensive. What are we to make of the obscenity employed by some of the greatest of our poets, the likes of Aristophanes, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift, never mind the Marquis de Sade, just to mention a few. They wrote a good deal of obscenity. How do we account for that? Aristotle in his Poetics hints at a plausible answer: comedy makes us laugh at what is ludicrous in ugliness, and its purpose is to teach, just as tragedy teaches by making us cry before what is destructive in nobility. For Aristotle they are equally serious and Shakespeare would agree, for he was both a comic and a tragic poet. Which is not to imply that both Aristotle and Shakespeare were unable to discern the emperor wearing no clothes, and performing unnatural acts to boot. Nowadays we have an emperor who goes around naked of any moral sensibilities but want us to believe that he is wearing splendid clothes. A few people, the more courageous among us, have dare to yell “the emperor is naked,”

What artists such as Mapplethorpe have attempted in the brave new world of present day Western civilization is to aestheticize the obscene by deliberately choosing subjects that shock the normal sense of decency. Those artists count on and exploit a dual reaction: to create tension in the viewer so that what is indecent and immoral becomes beautiful and therefore especially disturbing. The pretension is that the emperor is not naked, that obscenity is not there; that it resides only in the dirty minds of the viewers who are unable to appreciate beauty. What those artists are doing in effect is to deny the viewers their right to be shocked when they try hard to do exactly that. It’s having the cake and eating it too.

The “enlightened” modern art connoisseur and practitioner will of course retort: but this is art and art is free of any constraints! Indeed, it is but let us be honest with ourselves and admit that indeed great art may be used immorally for the furtherance of an ideology or for propaganda purposes (remember the film about Hitler Triumph of the Will?), just as a saint may produce banal art, for as Emmanuel Kant has taught us in his Critique of Judgment there is no strict nexus between the moral and the aesthetic and there is no need for morality to slavishly submit to the claims of Art. The public ought to remain free to subsidize or not to subsidize those “enlightened” modern artist without being branded “cultural philistines” by those who think that anything goes in art.

The ancient Greeks were also aware that those aspects of the soul that makes man truly human require political life. Man’s virtues and their counterparts, man’s vices, require that he be governed and to govern. But the poet knows with Rousseau and the romantics that there is a beauty beyond the polity, the beauty of the natural order. The world of convention is not the only world. Here obscenity may play a part. Obscenity can indeed be used to ridicule the conventional. In the hands of a poet obscenity can serve to elevate above the conventional order in which most of us are forced to live our mundane lives full of quite desperation; lives who never dare ask that dreadful existential question: what is the point of it all, which the Greeks rendered with one word: the Logos. Which is to say, in the hands of a poet, obscenity’s purpose becomes that of teaching what is truly beautiful, not what convention holds to be beautiful.

How to express a distinction between the justified and the unjustified use of obscenity in a rule of law is easier said than done. Certainly children are not capable of the distinction, they cannot grasp irony, and need to be protected. One thing is sure though, there are dire consequences resulting from he inability to distinguish between the proper and the improper use of obscenity. When the distinction is forgotten, when we conclude that shame itself is unnatural, that we must get rid of our hang ups and give up the conventions devised by hypocrites, that there are no judgments to be made, that nothing that is appropriate in one place is inappropriate in another place (for just as a dog is not prevented from copulating in the market place, so it is unnatural to deprive men of the same pleasure were it only that of the voyeur in a theater) we will then also have forgotten the distinction between art and trash; that is to say, we will have made ourselves shameless.

N.B. This article, in a slightly modified form first appeared on May 4, 2009 in Ovi magazine. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant today. Obviously things are not progressing morally.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

Police Reforms: “All Lives Matters.”

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Credit: Fibonacci Blue / flickr

Police and law enforcement agencies play a vital role in maintaining stability and peace in society. It is human nature to violate, but police and judiciary are there to arrest the violators and deliver justice to the victims.

Unfortunately, when Law enforcement agencies are provided extra powers, they tend to miss-use. The examples of misuse of powers by police, law enforcement agencies, and the judiciary are available in almost all countries, with a different degree or intensity.

The worst example was the brutal murder of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A video of the incident depicting the officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for an extended period attracted widespread outrage leading to local, national, and international protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racism in policing. The unrest began as local protests in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area of Minnesota before quickly spreading across the entire nation and internationally. The events are part of a more significant Black Lives Matter movement, which began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2012. Police reforms have been a central part of the movement’s demands, and protesters after the death of George Floyd articulated several desired outcomes, some of which have been addressed by federal, state, or local lawmakers.

This is not only one case, yet so many such unpleasant incidents happened but remain unreported., not only in America but throughout the world. The most serious countries are Israel and India, where the killing of innocent people by Security forces has become a daily routine.

The most precious creature in this Universe is Human beings. God has created everything else, just for human beings. The animals are designed to provide milk and meat to human beings. Crops are created to offer us grain, fruits, and vegetables. Sun is created to provide us light and heat, and rivers are to give water to humankind. To all mighty God, Human beings are the highest priority and valuable assets.

Unfortunately, what we see today is the most un-valuable thing is human life. The killing of human beings is happening all over the world, either in the form of the imposed war, or un-declared terrorism, or systematic genocide, or excessive use of force by a state against its own people, like Police brutalities, the human beings are the victim.

We all are born with the same biological process, and all mothers have suffered the same pains; all parents raised their children with immense efforts and sacrifices. A newborn baby can not survive without the unlimited mercy of his or her parents (I an father of 4 children, hope, if you are a parent, you might understand it better). All parents love their children in the same manner. We need to learn that all lives are precious, irrespective of their color, race, ethnicity, religion, or social status.

It is need of the time. We must respect humanity and formulate policies with the focus “All Lives Matters.”

It is appealed to the UN, the International Community, and all individuals with human conscious, to struggle to save human lives, not only in their own country but globally. Police reforms, accessive use of force, immunity to law enforcement agencies, extra-judicial powers, must be reviewed carefully. A uniformed policy needs to be formulated, with a focus to protect humankind, and a strict mechanism must be applied to enforce the unified code of conduct.

Intellectuals, professionals, volunteers, and people with humanity-love may come forward and give their recommendations and struggle for the safety of human lives globally.

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New Social Compact

Societal Impact of Covid-19: Stigma, Ostracism, fear – all parts of ‘New Normal”

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As the world grapples with combating the coronavirus or Covid-19 and the number of infected persons and deaths around the world continue to soar, the pandemic has left with serious societal consequences that make human life more difficult. Though most countries in the world have been affected, there are exceptions as well. Vietnam has not seen a single death. The world in the coming years is not going to be the same again as human life styles have started undergoing dramatic change. There is going to be a new normality. Fiji, North Korea and New Zealand also claimed zero fatality, though North Korea’s claims are under suspect. And with this, many old social mores are being rewritten, perception changing and new ones sculpted, though these new norms have not gained universal acceptability. While countries are taking measures to tackle the virus from spreading further, and stimulus packages are being announced to beef up the economies, there are some downslides which often are either being overlooked, if not ignored but definitely less talked about. Humanity world over is getting used to the “new normal”, though the definition of what this means could vary from country to country.

The societal impact of the virus is as damaging as the virus itself, which is why this neglected narrative needs elaboration for public awareness and understanding so that human dignity is respected. There is no denying that the nature of the virus is such that there is a sense of fear among the general populace. Unfortunately, this sense of fear has been stretched a bit too far to the extent of those falling victims of Covid-19 are ostracised in the community and on social media. Also, seen differently, the fear of social ostracism of those falling sick automatically put pressure on them to submit to government regulations. The sense of fear is so much overbearing that people are afraid even to deal with cash as the virus could be transmitted through human touch of bills and coins as there is no way of knowing who has touched them before, though there is no specific research finding to prove this. The fear has prompted some businesses to shift away from hard currency in favour of “touchless” payment options. This practice could accelerate steady flight by consumers away from cash notes and coins to online payment platforms.

Other examples of downslide are related to cremation of dead persons resulting from Covid-19, increase in domestic violence on women during the lockdown period, social boycott of persons suspected of infection of the virus and many more. There was even a case of a family in the Sambalpur district of Odisha where a family head returned from a separate state with great difficulty during the lockdown period only to find his wife not allowing him inside home for fear that he might be carrying the virus and would expose her and her daughters. The wife had to call the police when the man continued to persuade his wife, until he was taken away for quarantine arranged by the state for 14 days. Even home isolation was feared in this case. In normal circumstance, this would look bizarre but this is a different time where fear is all pervading. This is in sharp contrast when doctors, nurses and other paramedical health workers dealing with Covid-19 patients in hospitals voluntarily keep themselves away from the family members for fear of infecting them and prefer home isolation. Even governments have made special arrangements for the medical personnel for temporary stay in special facilities after work to keep them away from their dear ones. Reports of a son in New Delhi unwilling to perform the cremation ritual of his mother, a victim of the Covid-19, make uncomfortable reading. Examples galore are aplenty.               

While governments in many countries are announcing measures to support the poorer and deprived section of the society by either cash handouts or other means, there are peoples in the entertainment industry who are either spurned by the society or by the governments. This commentary focuses on what and how the government of Abe Shinzo in Japan did and approached to support the people in the entertainment industry, thereby demonstrating human dignity in this service sector.

After the initial announcement of cash handouts, it transpired that the sex workers were not included in the recipient list of this government support. Following uproar and protest by opposition parties, NGOs and social activist groups, the government agreed to offer financial aid to sex workers, though the amount offered was not enough for them to survive the coronavirus pandemic. 

The protagonists for sex workers’ cause argue that sex is unlike any other commodity. It is for some people tied to emotional beliefs about morality and pleasure and power. It is for many others tied to those same things, but it can also be transactional and unsentimental too, just a service. Yet, political and social stigmas limit the recognition of their basic rights as workers. There is an opinion that most labour is exploitative under capitalism. That includes peoples in the entertainment and service industry too.

In some countries, sex workers or entertainers can be registered, which could make them eligible for government schemes. However, in a pandemic situation, their economic and financial situation could be chaotic as they remain at the marginal section of the society, making them deprived from support when they need the most. In such a situation, they often fall back upon on the generosity of past clients and mutual aid from within their communities. Human rights issues are often ignored or not addressed properly. Poverty is the main reason that drives sex workers into this industry and they continue to suffer stigma and social prejudices for life. There is normally no protection in dance bars from owners and exploitation from business owners who are often men. And the sex workers are often scared as they do not want to lose their jobs. Generally, men do visit to enjoy but they are too conservative too when it comes to their personal social life because of status, reputation and social standing.

Sex workers are used to live through a series of crises throughout their lives and will survive the pandemic too as they do not expect support from either the governments or the owners. They are the society’s orphans.

So what are the lives of the sex workers in Japan during the pandemic? As people started avoiding close contact, they suddenly find themselves out of clients and thus of money. With little savings and no other source of income, they look for other jobs but nobody hires them in the middle of an economic crisis, leaving them to live with borrowed money and falling into debt. During this strange time, survival comes first before thinking about their health. Across Japan, sex workers are hit hard by closures and restrictions due to the pandemic.

When the Abe government launched a massive stimulus package worth $989 billion or 108 trillion yen to soften the economic blow, sex workers were not in the mix of cash handouts as was for every household. After some controversy, sex workers became eligible to apply for aid under certain conditions. The move was well received by activists who hailed the government decision as a sign of progress for an industry that has long suffered social stigma. The package offered little reassurance as the rules for eligibility looked opaque and restrictive.      

Prostitution, or the exchange of sexual intercourse for money, is criminalized in Japan but other types of sex work are legal. According to Havocscope, a research organisation on the global black market, the sex industry in Japan generates an estimated $24 billion a year. The entertainment industry operates under the guise of many names: “delivery health”, a euphemism for escort services that stop short of intercourse or “fashion health”, which offers services like oral sex in massage parlours. When the Abe government announced the relief package, it excluded those legally in the adult entertainment and sex industries, drawing criticism from activists and opposition members. They called the exclusion as “occupational discrimination”.

Subsequently under pressure from activists the government reversed the proposed plan and included those working legally in the sex industry. New guidelines were drafted, making sex work agencies and employers to receive subsidies for those who have to stay home to care for children during school closures. Sex workers also became eligible to apply for the cash handout that was available for people who lost income due to the coronavirus.      

Expectedly the move polarised public opinion in Japan. Though Japan is a modern country, it still remains socially conservative. Some public figures and TV entertainers protested the use of taxpayer money to support sex workers. There were others who defended the night business as people need to work for a living.

Many sex workers found government rules for financial aid and eligibility as confusing and difficult to navigate. It was confusing for them if the handout was only available for those who lost a certain amount of their income, or who were dismissed from their jobs entirely, such as losing agents who liaise between the clients and sex workers. The plan also required applicants to show proof of their salary and lost income, a significant challenge for sex workers who are often paid under the table and whose salaries could fluctuate.

The salary components in this industry are also opaque as sex workers are often reluctant to disclose their full income due to the nature of their work and fear of repercussions. Even if some are within legal bounds, a pervasive sense of shame and stigma means that many are reluctant to identify themselves as sex workers on record. This lack of documentation prevented many from receiving financial aid. If those hid their real income information for tax purposes reveal now, that could have led to its own set of consequences. They are destined to remain society’s neglected orphans.

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New Social Compact

Migration is a mirror held up to all nations: Insights from migrant writers

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Authors:Ash Narain Roy and Aishwarya Parihar*

Great Indian poet and first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Rabindranath Tagore’s words are highly instructive for our discussion on migration and its manifold manifestations. He said, “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknowns and were lost in one sea.” In fact, one could argue that the great dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa and throughout  rest of the world marked the beginning of humanity itself.

Migration has taken place since the dawn of time. Seeking safety, shelter, food and human freedom, people have sought to escape hunger and persecution in search of a better life. History is a struggle between those who tried to overcome boundaries and fences and those who tried to restore them; those who erected walls and those who dismantled them. The native people were wary of recognizing national borders. The nomads and early settlers, ranchers and hunters had different notions of what constitute borders, authority, territory and identity. Quite often borders are political and historical, not geographical. The rivers, mountains and deserts don’t separate, they unite. On the other hand, the French and British cut Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.

As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says ingeniously, “human history is a history of movement and mingling…We are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.” Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid and author of Exit West takes the issue on a very different plane saying how human beings undergo many migrations and how we are all migrants today, even those of us who have never moved.  British novelist Hanif Kureishi says a migrant is stripped of colour, gender and character. She/he has been made into something an alien and an example of the undead  who will invade, colonise and contaminate. In a way, nobody is actually a native.

As British-Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” Time has come to recognize this reality. It is equally important to focus attention on the forces that motivate the young people to risk death, slavery and sex trade in the hope of a safer life.

The coronavirus pandemic will further aggravate the migrant crisis all over the world. The International Organisation for Migration says that travel restrictions due to the pandemic have left people on the move “more vulnerable than ever.” It further says that “There are thousands of stranded migrants all over the world  because of the closing of the borders.” The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, warns the UN, urging governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

The global economy could shrink by up to 1% in 2020 due to Coronavirus, a reversal from the previous forecast of 2.5 % growth. The economy may contract further if the pandemic is not brought under control. According to various estimates, coronavirus could push about 400 million people into extreme poverty. And its impact will be most severe in developing countries. The Eurozone economy will shrink by 8 to 12 % this year. The pandemic has triggered a recession twice as deep as after the 2008 financial crisis.

 The Western world too faces a moment of new reckoning. The 2008 crisis exposed its real flaws and weaknesses. After the coronavirus pandemic, the scab has been peeled off and the wound is worse than one thought. No country is an island of prosperity which can live in perpetual advancement. The developed world needs new ideas and action and a new approach to managing the future.

What is worrying is that the Covid-19 health crisis may alter the parameters of discussion on migration and mobility. At a time of populist upsurge, political elements are exploiting the crisis for political gain using migration, globalization as scapegoats. Blame games and conspiracy theories have gained new currency.

The Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration says that the history of migration can’t be separated from that of the empire. Large number of Britons moved to colonies due to economic hardship, land dispossession, ethnic and social cleansing, labour exploitation and wealth loss. The gap was filled by African, Asian and Caribbean communities. A predominant number of migrants today have similar reasons to seek a better life in Europe and North America.

A migrant also fits the British anthropologist Mary Douglas’ definition of dirt as “matter out of place.” A migrant becomes less than human by being out of place, unwanted where he/she is working, and unwelcome at the point of origin.

Our world is fast becoming a ‘No Go World.’ Fear is redrawing our maps and infecting our politics. Remote zones of insecurity are becoming central to the new world disorder.  Rich countries are reinforcing their borders and severing contact points with the zones of insecurity. What is also emerging is what journalist Todd Miller calls ‘Empire of Borders’. Big powers are now exporting their borders around the world. They are extending their zones of security beyond their physical borders. To them, borders are the last line of defence, not the first line of defence.

The world is distressed by the double whammy of the migrant crisis and the Covid-19. The pandemic represents a new battlefield in international politics that will determine the rise and fall of nations. It is also a contest to determine what type of state and society will prove to be most resilient. Countries that have robust democratic institutions and high levels of social cohesion and that can handle the migrant crisis and climate crisis imaginatively will do well. It is a new defining moment. Not confronting the warning, countries and societies risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of moral bewilderment. Tomorrow could be too late.

Literature as a Lens of Analysis

This paper analyzes the contemporary migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere employing literature as a tool of dissecting the different nuances of what Brazilian scholar Menara Lube Guizardi calls “the age of migrant crisis.” Literature is the quintessential reflection of society and has served as a critique of the socio-political events from time immemorial. It has pioneered the revolutions that have shaped the world into what it is today.

As Turkish writer Elif Shafak says, a writer’s job “is to ask questions about different issues. By raising honest questions, literature makes invisible visible and make the unheard more heard”. Migration is a major topic in literary works. Also, writers are good at making new maps of reality.  Salman Rushdie says in ‘Imaginary Homelands’ that “our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools.” The excluded and the prohibited are always marginal to our collective imagination. 

The migrant literature has emerged as a genre of its own.  It’s literature above anything else, the narration of the essence of humanism that lends insights into the conflicts, conspiracies and complexities of individuals.

Migrant literature has manifested itself in a plethora of forms: cautionary tales of dystopian fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, prose and children’s literature. In these variations are enmeshed the different themes related to refugees and migration such as displacement and statelessness, conflict-ridden homes, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, loss of identity.

Insights from Migrant Writers: Mehta and Lalami

Suketu Mehta, New York-based author and one of the finest thinkers and writers on migration, comes from a family which, in his own words, has moved all over Earth, from India to Kenya to England to the US and back again and is still moving. His words resonate with every human and the children of every human who attempted the audacious road of escaping misery that life had become and dreamt of passing on a better one to their children. It might as well be criminal to dream of that, for such a journey is on a path of miseries itself.

As Mehta says, if a migrant or a refugee is somehow able to make it through the barbed wires to the point of destination, his heart brims with the hope of finally having a better life. For if the hearsay is  to be believed, the destination must be a paradise. That is what they claim too, that’s what the fuss is about, protecting it from your savagery and your barbaric family, you migrant. He says,

“Look, in a few years, with luck and hard work, you, too, can rise here.”

Mehta draws our attention towards a hardcore truth –how every 30th human is living in a country they were not born in. The turn of the century has made displacement via harsh climate change, war-torn continents and gross political instability leading to ethnic persecution of peoples. As we go forward from here, it only appears that we are only getting closer to a dystopia. We are nomads of circumstances. As he puts it succinctly, whether you’re running from something or running toward something, you’re on the run.”

What greets these travelers at the borders is uncertain.  An economic migrant might  not be good enough to be granted clemency of circumstances, his case not severe enough. On the other hand, a refugee might be a fearful, brutish alien.

Refugees settle for less at their new destinations. They make peace with cleaning the bedpans at a hospital regardless of having qualifications of a doctor. That is simply out of question and there are rules in place for nations to protect their own people of this thievery. Rewarding the country providing you with a safe haven by stealing the jobs of their people is a big no.

The “foreigners” become the easy target as possessors of criminal attitudes. Suddenly, all the failures of the criminal infrastructures in place, are all on the refugee. The refugee amidst the saintly population, so to say. As Mehta says “Mug shots of dark-skinned criminals, whether Moroccan or Mexican, somehow strike more terror in the Western imagination than those of homegrown white rapists.” The leaders of some of these “superior” nations are propagating this tale, because “blame it on the outsider” is an easy out.

 Why are all these migrants from these poor countries, coming to our prosperous nations that we built, they ask loudly. It is because “we are poor because of you.” The game is rigged indeed as Mehta grieves, “This is how the game was rigged: First they colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries.”

The powerful argument that Mehta makes is that migrants and refugees are shunned because they remind us of our worst fears.

We reject the refugee in the orderly nations because he is the sum of our worst fears,…. he is a reminder that the same thing could happen to us, too.”

A haunting sentiment is corroborated by Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami when she says, “I am an immigrant. Someday you might be one, too.” It is high time we shunned the antiquated ideas about migration and refugees. What awaits in the coming decades might become a cause for role reversals, with the temperature of Earth permanently rising with each year, might be an invitation to uncountable calamities. These, in turn, will only cause displacement, conflicts and more displacement.

Sitting at our homes right now, of the fear of the unknown, we might as well take a moment to pay attention to what she’s urging:

“Those who are safe from displacement — at least for the moment — must confront the roles they want to play in this unfolding global story.”

Grasping the Matter: Nostalgia and Choicelessness

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie explores some grim realities of modern-day migration. In the central protagonist, Ifemelu, we see some of Adichie’s nostalgia, they both hail from Nigeria, move to the US for educational pursuits, opinionated and clever young black women in America. Adichie carefully voices the narrative of a willing migrant separate from that of a refugee. Why are the miseries of migrants downplayed? Why are their experiences disregarded on the scales of severity? In representing this, along with Ifemelu, another central character Obinze becomes an important tool.

Obinze is Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart. They both part ways in pursuit of a better life, they are well off individuals in their homelands who move to the west for “the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” That’s the dilemma that wilful migration poses to their critics, they can just dismiss the gravity of circumstances attached to economic migration.

Migrants experience a constant state of unbelonging. Even after having lived in America for more than a decade, Ifemelu struggles to identify as an American, forever an outsider looking in. From this point onwards, however, even her home in Nigeria is far left behind and she has become an outsider there as well, returnee of the great West, a perceived Americanized black woman, an Americanah. The concept of home becomes an abstract, internal feeling of longing.

Dinaw Mengestu extends this emotional feeling of unbelonging in his portrayal of Sepha Stephanos in his novel Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Mengestu himself had to flee from Ethiopia during the communist revolution of 1974, which claimed the life of his uncle, Stephanos also came to the US after having fled from the Ethiopian red terror. Mengestu’s metaphorical usage of Washington and Addis Ababa to denote “arrival” and “departure” respectively, must resonate with migrants and refugees alike. Stephanos expresses his palpable difficulty living in America and how can it possibly be done if he could never really depart from Ethiopia, his home. There’s so much psychological struggle associated with the eternal suspension between the two feelings that needs addressing.

“What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.”

As  Randa Jarrar, in her novel,  A Map of Home, says, growing up for Nidali “moving was a part of being Palestinian”. The home becomes portable, an idea, travelling as the migrant goes.

“Our people carry the homeland in their souls”.

For a greater chunk of migrants and refugees, war-torn homes are an unfortunate reality that they are on the run from. They get a sense of home even through painful memories. At the back of the store that Stephanos runs, he and his friends, also stuck in similar circumstances and suspended in the memories of home,  play a game called name an African dictator and the year he seized power. This is a greater resonating feeling, one that transcends borders much like the migrants.

Thanhha Lai draws on similar feelings of her own childhood through the protagonist of her novel Inside Out and Back Again, a 10 –year- old Kim Hà who had to flee Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and ends up in Alabama. The characters Stephanos and Há are different in every aspect but their longing for their conflict-ridden homes in the memories that scar is common.

“No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

Through literature that focuses on the narratives of migrant children, writers bring another critical site of observance– the experiences of displacement at an impressionable age. These are more prone to go unnoticed as these kids often don’t have the faculty to voice their plight, but the careful, patient observance of literature helps unfold these.

Lai’s Há experiences dislocation at an unfamiliar country and immense frustration of not being able to understand the language. A smart kid who is not able to perform well at school because of linguistic barriers has her doubting her own intelligence. Adding to these woes is the sense of alienation, of being a misfit, of looking completely different than everyone else and on top of that is the misery of being bullied for it, shatters young minds.

Dina Nayeri’s own account as an Iranian refugee in Dubai, then Italy and finally after granted asylum in the US, in her book The Ungrateful Refugee, confirms the coming of age plights of migrant children. Nayeri experiences an immense pressure to give up everything that makes her Iranian, is violently bullied and verbally ridiculed at school.

“The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America?”

This is why it becomes important to consider the accounts of the children while treading the subject of migration mired with complexities. Nayeri explains how growing up in Iran, the sound of the bomb explosion, the feeling of imminent death remained an everyday event, only to be faced these traumatic instances where a migrant seeks respite. As a young girl, alienated in her surroundings while always being reminded of that alienation, she observed her mother’s predicament whose life had become compromise and testimony. Even more devastating aspect of her story is how they must relive the war happening at their homes, always being demanded to resound their escape story and their identities simply cornered to that escape.

“I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like…,”

Nayeri expresses a valid disappointment that rather than given the chance and the resources to thrive, they have to spend their lives justifying their presence or be labelled an ungrateful refugee. The writers bringing their own migrant experiences, further reach out to a lot more others whose stories need to be told, just as Nayeri does for these “travellers in residence” as Maeve Brennan once called. That’s where the essence of literature is rooted after all, in telling stories that need to be told.

Thematical Linkages Bridging the Writings

All the books and writings discussed above are woven with a common thread like alienation and loneliness and a sense of homelessness that give rise to fragmented identities. The migrants belong nowhere. The sense of hollowness and dislocation that migrants feel serves to highlight the uprootedness of today’s citizens of the global village, migrant or native.

The similar sense of unbelonging portrayed by Adichie through Ifemelu is found in Mengestu’s Stephanos and Lai’s Há. Ifemelu’s movement stems out of hunger for opportunity, Stephanos’ is a painful exile, Há accompanies her family out of a conflict-ridden Vietnam. The causations behind the movement of each of the central characters are different, they come from different countries, out of different circumstances, yet a young woman’s sense of never been able to belong to America even after years of living and neither in Nigeria anymore is similar to a man’s permanent state of suspension between Addis and Washington and a 10-year-old girl’s sense of lost home, without finding solace in the newer surroundings.

 To Adichie, home exists in migrant’s memory. In Suketu Mehta’s account home is an idea. In Jarrar’s portrayal, home travels with the migrant. Stephanos longs for his lost home in Ethiopia reminiscing through memories that are painful.  Há’s innocent mind seeks a tumultuous Saigon than a peaceful Alabama. A similar longing is present in Nayeri’s nostalgia of her home in Iran despite conflicts.

 The othering of the migrant is also a common thread in all writings. Ifemelu is discriminated due to her dark skin, Há feels like the odd one out amongst other kids with her dark hair on olive skin, Nayeri feels the need to change everything about her Iranian appearance as a teenager. It is simply not that such intense questioning of their outer appearance is something that arises only out of self-awareness but because of the treatment by the hosts that comes attached to it.

  Mehta also says that the dark-skinned migrant is an easier target, assumed as the culprit and easily blamed for the terror. The migrant also suffers from self-doubt besides being marked unintelligent. Ifemelu fails to get a job even though she’s qualified, Nayeri is bullied at school.

 Conclusion

In a time of hardening borders and the fear of and contempt for the other, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a link between nations and societies. We need to continue telling the stories of common people, stories of continuities, not the stories of elites and their battles, the way they interacted and shared similar ways of living. These stories are a powerful way to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudices we might have about the other. Centuries ago, it was the Europeans who were crossing the sea to reach India and the Americas. Today the tide has turned.

In view of the ongoing pandemic, fast deteriorating climate crisis and the global outrage spurred by the death of George Floyd, blaming the migrants for all the ills and the demonization of the ‘other’ have become a less comfortable conversation. If nations and societies don’t deal with the migrant crisis with compassion and imagination, it will assume cataclysmic proportions whose amber will consume everyone. A combination of developments has created space and time to heal. But the lens with which the world views the issue must change. The world is “bruised and bleeding”, says Tony Morrison. But we must “refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds. These are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Some borders become a wound that refuses to heal. There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Migrants are often the victims of ‘radical otherness’. Othering has been used through history as a justification for boundary setting, wall fencing and for oppression based on colour, gender, nationality and religion.

It is possible to transform our ‘teething borders’ into tender fences provided we heed the cri de coeur of the indigenous poet Craig Santos Perez:

Let us bridge each other

Across the wounded borderlands,

Until those once forbidden are now

Family, and those once prohibited

Are now protected.

*Aishwarya Parihar is a Global Studies Masters student, studying under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship  currently at Leipzig University and the University of Vienna for the coming year.

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