Theater of Cruelty

Admonition for hospitality

Bauman's reflections on the migration crisis are simple, but his main points are worth insisting on. 


Bauman Zygmunt:
Strangers at Our Door
Polity Books, 2016

When we are in a major crisis of migration since the war, it is natural to be afraid of the stranger. They are many, and we cannot expect everyone to adapt to a situation with new compatriots. But we have no choice, says Zygmunt Bauman in his new book Strangers at Our Door. Migrations are nothing new: Throughout history, popular movements have taken place regularly, and they have always led to a population unrest when they have been at their worst.

What is new is the combination of terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and politicians' use of jihadism to flourish political coin on their own interests.

This is a life-threatening situation, says the Polish-born sociologist, who believes today's political situation is just as incomprehensible and demanding as it was in pre-war Europe.

Cosmic fear. Bauman traces it all back to fear. Humans have at all times been afraid – of strong forces of nature, of external enemies. For death and the whims of nature. This "cosmic fear" – as Bauman calls it, according to Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin – is a basic state of man. But it becomes dangerous when used for political gain. It is the overt cynicism of politicians that worries Bauman. For isn't that, he suggests, that the concern people have for what cannot be controlled – which in our time includes migrant strangers – has today been allowed as a prejudice we can practice everyday? Didn't the cosmic fear turn into official – legitimate – fear?

Here Bauman draws in the fearful people's "savior," "the strong man," who is currently exemplified by Donald Trump. But Trump is, after all, just a symptom of a rhetorical turn that can be felt elsewhere, too, Bauman points out, not least in a Europe that knows about migration pressures and terrorist threats far more than the United States (though Trump obviously wants us to think differently) .

Security is despotism. Characters like Hungary's Viktor Orbán, who is openly racist and anti-Islamic, are once again becoming more and more common in Europe. But this modus operandi, where Islam is designated as the enemy, has a subtler and more normal disguise in the Western European, seemingly liberal variant. Look at France, for example. Of course, we have Marine Le Pen and Front National, but we don't have to go far to the right to see a frightening tendency to branch out, which is reportedly about making us citizens safer, but in reality has the opposite effect, Bauman believes.

After the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo and, later, the crowd that celebrated National Day in Nice, François Hollande has been the one who has most strongly advocated a frightening divisive policy. Such attacks naturally cause anxiety in the general public, but the state of emergency that has come about in their wake is making matters worse, as it fixes a relationship between citizens and migrants rooted in potential threat and nationalist concrete rhetoric about "our values ".

Zizek and Bauman. When society is about to disintegrate, when solidarity and empathy, or togetherness with others, are threatened, the nation is often presented as a guarantee from an official point of view, says Bauman (quoting the Marxist historian Hobsbawm). The worst thing we can do for citizens is to put our trust in a strong leader who promises to keep "the others" away: a strong man who promises to build a wall between us and what threatens our "community of values." More police in the streets, more surveillance and expanded authorities for searches and arrests is the beginning of a hidden despotism, where citizens are held in a reality description where the new policy is "necessary for our security". But that's the opposite, Bauman says.

If we live together, we have a duty to be hospitable to the stranger, not hostile, says Kant.

Does he then give any new guidelines? Unlike, for example, Slavoj Zizek's latest book, which also dealt with the migration crisis, Bauman is surprisingly little original. Zizek is more interesting in his reflections on the topic because he tries to understand the "guilt" of Europeans for the return of those expelled: The revenge of former colonies or failed humanitarian interventions is too closely linked to our responsibility for the Middle East crisis, Zizek claims (among other things) .

Us and them. Bauman is thus a bit superficial in dealing with the migration challenges. There is probably no new use of the word "fluent" either, a metaphor he almost does always otherwise makes use of: In his other books, not only modernity is fluid, but love and fear, to take two obvious examples. Bauman's book shows, we might say, a concerned public intellectual who sums up some essential points and presents them in a non-academic and accessible language. The book recycles what we already know, and the radical thing about it – if we are to call it that – lies in repeating the obvious because, by virtue of being obvious, it has no effect in practical life.

The essence of Strangers at Our Door is not new, but as purposeful as when it was first formulated by Immanuel Kant in The eternal peace in 1795. For it is with this German philosopher Bauman ends in his reflections on the migration crisis. This place in the thinking around where we are is surprisingly few, but can still be repeated, since this obviously not is an effective part of our lives today. If we live together, we have a duty to be hospitable to the stranger, not hostile, says Kant. If peace is to be possible, we must avoid hostility and, at all costs, steer clear of the distinction between "us" and "them." No doubt about it – let's repeat Kant's demand for a cosmopolitan mindset. In the end, again and again. Let's hope it has an effect. Because, as Bauman says, we have no choice: It's hospitality or chaos.

Kjetil Røed
Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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