Living “the other,” fearing “the other”

Living in Victoria—an idyllically beautiful and peaceful spot on the Pacific—one cannot but be struck by the various types of fears that are pervading the planet today. Fears of epidemic diseases such as SARS, the West Nile Virus, the “Mad Cow” disease, AIDS, and tuberculosis, or fears of the human-created diseases such as racism, poverty, violence, injustice and terrorism. Over the past month, I have attended conferences and meetings that focused on the contemporary salience of fears—caused by both objective and imaginary factors—in Western societies, particularly North America at this historical juncture.

Fear is nothing new in human affairs. It has been with us since the dawn of time. Now, however, we live in a world that is both increasingly intertwined and alarmingly disjointed. Globalization has dramatized a fundamental reality for the fortunate citizens living in the rich world: If you want to subject the rest of the planet to your models of consumption and personal freedoms, expect responses and reverberations. You must accept that ultimately, you, like the “wretched of the earth,” live in the same world, with all its warts and disappointments. By no moral, legal, or cultural calculus will it ever be acceptable that some live in comfort and splendor while the majority of Earth’s human denizens suffer hunger, oppression, want and despair.

Yet, in the poorest and least developed societies of the non-Western post-industrial world, humans have kept a closer connection between themselves and their natural surroundings. In societies where agriculture, horticulture, and grazing still play important roles in the local economy, humans enjoy a symbiotic relationship with nature and its various creatures—vegetation and animal—that would be inconceivable to North Americans who spend most of their waking hours in air-conditioned mega-malls and high-tech office blocks. In North America, a total separation between the man-made and natural worlds has nearly been achieved, with notable exceptions in farming and seafaring communities. Urban and suburban sprawl has taken nature as a hostage—a symbol of the human mind’s illusion of taming Mother Nature. For North Americans, the natural world is frightening: bugs must be killed, wild animals shot or locked up, weeds obliterated.

The upshot of this attempt to control, manipulate, and commodify the natural world is seen when episodes of new or virulent diseases erupt, such as the current wave of SARS infections, which has statistically taken fewer lives in Canada than the average holiday weekend’s traffic fatalities. Nontheless, Canadians and Americans express helplessness and terror before this new disease. Their vaunted technologies and carefully controlled environments have failed them, so they quickly fall prey to fears that often verge on hysteria. Such fears bleed into other fears, evoking the desire to exert additional controls locally, nationally, and internationally. We see Canadians and Americans now attempting to literally or figuratively shut out anything alien, strange, or unsual. The “other” is held in suspicion and placed under surveillance; the suspect held in quarantine.

For instance, here in Canada, especially in major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, people have been canceling all kinds of travel plans and social events, and even avoiding Chinese restaurants! SARS originated in China, so, the White Man’s logic goes, anyone who looks vaguely Asian is a potential carrier of dangerous diseases. My wife and I go out to dinner once a week at a great Chinese restaurant here in Victoria, “J.J’s. Won-Ton Noodle House.” The last few times we went for a meal, we noticed fewer patrons than usual. The restaurant is always packed because the food is superb and the family owners are so warm and attentive. The reason for the empty tables, we were told by friends, was the fear of SARS!

Another type of disease affecting humanity is racism — irrational fear and hatred of the “Other”. These types of fears have been dramatically exacerbated by the violent events of September 11th in the US. The “other” now is the Arab, the Muslim, the “Middle Eastern type.” Two recent anecdotes illustrate this fear of the Arab and Islamic other in North America.

A colleague who teaches with me at the university recently visited South Africa with her family. One day, on a shopping spree with her kids (ages 3 and 9), Ruth stopped in a store where there were three Muslim women veiled in black waiting in line as customers. Ruth’s 9-year-old son looked at his mother and exclaimed with alarm: “What’s wrong with these women, Mom? Are they covered because they have a disease?” To her distress, Ruth tried to explain the meaning of the veil in Islam. A few days ago, I ordered a children’s book on the meaning of Ramadan and will be mailing it to Ruth to help her explain Islam to her children, rather than letting them pick up dubious views from the mainstream media and school-yard gossip.

This past week, I attended, as a member, the advisory board meeting of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Victoria. Every year the Center organizes a major series of talks under a chosen theme. For next year, the theme of fear of new social dangers, whether disease or “terrorism” was suggested. A colleague, a Canadian board member, shared an experience he had had on a recent trip to the US. While going through the airport’s security check, he saw someone whom he described as a “Middle Eastern type” being thoroughly examined and questioned by the security guards. He shared the mixed feelings he had experienced. On the one hand, he felt better that the “Middle Eastern” fellow was being totally frisked and queried, but on the other hand, he felt bad about the selective nature of racial profiling.

I felt somewhat insulted as an Arab-American and an academic. My sense of outrage is compounded because we are living in British Columbia, a province which is legally classified as unceded native territory, since the treaty process by which White settlers rationalized and legitimated their expropriation of lands across Canada is still in process here. The hypocrisy and complacency of North American European white colonizers and their descendants is amazing. They have quickly forgotten the millions of native First Nations who perished on this continent during the European exploration and conquest of the “New World.”

Americans and Canadians of European descent conveniently forget that, in addition to the violence, cruelty, and oppression meted out to the indigenous populations of North America, it was primarily epidemic diseases imported from Europe that decimated the continent’s indigenous peoples.

It is ironic that the “wretched of the earth,” to borrow Frantz Fanon’s term denoting the victims of European colonialism, often wreak their revenge in non-violent ways by reminding complacent and consumerist Westerners that progress does not mean denigrating, exploiting, debasing, and fearing the “other” or arrogantly trying to control nature, but rather, treating others and the planet with compassion and full understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.

On a more positive note, Canada, unlike its neighbor to the south, has a lot to teach the world. In the USA, as illustrated by Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine”, fear of “the Other” is at the very root of American social structure. Fear is instrumental in maintaining segregation and racially-based discrimination. Canadian society is not a utopia, but it is based on diversity and respects multiculturalism, with most discrimination affecting, sadly, Canada’s First Nations. The “Other” in Canada is reflected by the presence, among other communities, of 250,000 Lebanese in Montreal alone. Like Lebanon, Canada is not, strictly speaking, a nation-state but a “nations’ state” — a living, evolving, always incomplete experiment in tolerance and coexistence.

George Emile Irani teaches conflict analysis and management at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. He is a regular contributor to The Daily Star.