Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alterité

Since my conversation with my sister, I've been thinking a lot about trying to understand people who don't share my views about bendy folk. I suppose that's why I made such an unexpected connection last night.

I was listening to Professor Jeremy McInerney lecturing* about Greece in the aftermath of the Persian Wars of the fifth century B.C. My ears perked up when he started talking about how the Greeks defined themselves in relation to their enemies.

McInerney makes the point that, prior to the Persian Wars, not even the Greeks living within the Persian Empire saw the Persians as alien. There are records of Persian rulers of Greeks in Persian territory who worshiped the local Greek gods. Greeks served at the Persian court. Greek craftsmen went, happily, to work on Persian projects.

But then, during the Persian wars, the Greek attitude seems to have shifted. They came to see the Persians as effete, effeminate easterners. War had transformed their neighbors into The Other. In defining themselves, they had taken everything they thought about themselves and projected its mirror image onto their enemies. Some historians call this process alterité.

This all struck me as a possible answer to my question "Why on earth are people -- especially people who aren't even religious -- so uncomfortable with gay folks? What difference does it make?" Perhaps the answer is "They need to strongly define themselves, and this definition includes the assignment of an opposite."

But here's the question that has always maddened me: "Why the U.S.?" Why are we, of all people, so bothered by gays? In our short history we've prided ourselves in giving the finger to authority while we give a voice to the individual citizen. Of all people, shouldn't we be the ones to proclaim that a person's sexuality has nothing to do with his worth?

Well, let's look at us in relation to the Greeks. According to the theory of alterité, the Greeks needed to define themselves in response to war. That sure sounds familiar. World War II filled America's head with visions of its Greatest Generation. Since then the American man has had one heck of an image to live up to. To fulfill this need, did he also require someone to be everything the American man wasn't?

Then, long before the guns were cool, the Russians stepped in and gave us a whopping big boogeyman: a mirror in which we saw our dark opposite. Again the American man had a foil against which to define himself and a source of paranoia. Did this make him look around himself for his antithesis?

And in the midst of all this, some of the biggest civil rights movements in history arose. Liberals became more visible and organized. New media technology showed the world images of the military being called in to enforce desegregation laws. Liberal and conservative had a new arena in which each gleefully saw in the other an evil homunculus. Did this solidify the image of the gay as everything the Real American wasn't?

"What does it mean to be an American?" Aside from the years immediately following the American Revolution, I imagine that the years since World War II have been those in which Americans have most desperately needed to answer that question.

Does our fear of gay people stem from a need to define ourselves?

That question is not academic. It bears on my work as an ally. If the answer is "Yes" then the nature of that work becomes much more clear: my job is to break down the illusion of The Other. My job is to show people that The Other is us.



*Here is a transcription of the relevant sections from Professor McInerny's lectures.

One last aspect of the modern treatment of the Greeks we need to address is that over the last two centuries, as the modern nation states of England, Germany, France, and the US, have taken shape, moving out of being earlier kingdoms or constituting themselves are republics, they developed national identities as all nations have at some point. This is created out of a duel process of a consideration of what we once were, of our past, and of what the other cultures and civilizations are around us, the ones we deal with. This is the process often referred to as alterité, where we look at another culture or civilization and see in it the opposite of ourselves. We take our values and abstract the negative onto the other.

Now in the course of this century we've certainly seen that in the way that we in the western world have looked at the Soviet Union as it one was, and now that it's gone we have much different feelings about the Russians. Yet we thought of that world as being in some sense, our diametric opposite. More generally speaking, there's been a strong notion that we, all in the west, western Europe and the English-speaking world, North America, are somehow different from the east.

This has been a product of our colonial experience and history, and has meant we've had to think of ourselves somehow as being culturally quite distinct. Part of that process of identifying what we are, as opposed to what they are, has been to think about our past and what we come from. So the whole enterprise of studying the ancient world has really often been tainted by this notion of finding some kind of cultural superiority in the west, a superiority of our way of doing things. Whereas the east could point to Confucian philosophy, the aesthetic accomplishments of China or Japan, the western version of this has been to go back to our Classical roots.

...

More importantly, not only is Greece relatively insignificant in terms of the whole expanse of the Persian Empire, this I think is really significant: there were many Greeks living and working in the Persian Empire, and who did not think of the Persians as being a completely foreign and alien people who were the exact opposite of them. We know that, for example, as Persian power increased, and as they called upon stonemasons to build their extraordinary palaces, they were importing Greeks from Ionia, who were working quite happily in the Persian Empire. We know Greeks who were actually living at the court of the great king, working for him, recording, acting as doctors for the great king and so forth.

So I think that it is a great mistake to think that, at the time that the Greeks and the Persians first came into contact, there was an immediate sense that the two were destined to a final confrontation. That's a view that is dictated by subsequent events. But in fact at the time I think the world must have looked very different indeed.

...

The victory of the Athenians, the Spartans, and the rest of the Greeks, had enormous consequences for the Greeks themselves. It's from this time onwards, really, that we find the Greeks more fully articulating a sense of their Greek identity as opposed to another identity. In this case, the Persians playing the role of The Other. You may remember in a very early lecture in this series we talked about the notion of alterité, of defining onesself in relation to another culture. From this time on, the Persians will play that role for the Greeks, as that alien other culture. In fact one very good book written on the Greeks of the fifth century is called The Mirror of Herodotus, claiming that when Herodotus looked at the Persians he was really looking, in a sense, in a mirror, seeing the negative reflection of what the Greeks liked to see in themselves.

Consequences of this victory were wide-ranging and far-reaching. It is from this time, for example, that we find the Greeks in their political discourse often using the term "eleutheria", meaning "freedom". It's quite clear that the victory of the Greeks over the Persians resulted in them more clearly articulating in their own minds the idea of what freedom entailed. And so the characteristic notion of Greek freedom, that takes root at this time, is that it is the freedom of a community to exist autonomously -- free of the influence of an outside power. And this remained a powerful idea throughout the rest of Greek history and remains a powerful idea and an interpretation of freedom even today.

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