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​In the age of xenophobia, we ought to rethink ‘the foreigner’


The figure of the stranger has always inspired two kinds of feelings – awe and respect, fear and terror. Both in literature and in life, the stranger is either worshipped as a god or he is vilified as a demon and scapegoated for the ills of the community. In both cases, he resides outside of the human community, whether in heaven or hell, or he is ostracised to a land of monsters and aliens.

The stranger represents a limit-experience where the known touches upon the unknown, where the familiar is threatened with the unfamiliar. His presence in our midst brings us to the edge. He unsettles our customary ways of looking at the world and challenges us to think again.

Some recent events in the news have made me wonder whether the refugee, the migrant and the foreigner have come to incarnate the figure of the stranger.

In the United States, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in January to speed up the process to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. The order also places an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and temporarily bars citizens from seven Muslim countries from entering the US.

“A nation without borders is not a nation. Beginning today, the United States of America gets back control of its borders,” Trump said at the department of homeland security.

In the United Kingdom, home affairs post-Brexit has tightened its rules on migration, travel, tourism and work. Six countries in the European Union have also reinstated wide-ranging border checks following Denmark’s decision to tighten control on its southern border with Germany.

In South Africa, we have witnessed an increase of xenophobic attacks over the last few of years targeting migrants from other African countries. In the most recent attacks, which took place in February, homes were burned and shops were looted in the name of preventing crimes allegedly committed by foreigners.

Trump’s statement perhaps best captures what is at stake in most of these cases. The borders of a community must be monitored and policed against the threat of foreign elements, as it would otherwise no longer be a community.

Although the threat in question is often put as an economic one with the repeated cliché of “they’re taking away our jobs”, it seems to me to be in truth an existential one. A national community that is not in control of its borders opens itself to the threat of death.

I do not mean the threat of terrorism. It is much more dangerous for a community to have its identity and values called into question than for it to face possible terror attacks. The foreigner, the refugee and the migrant seem to be the living incarnation of this threat for many nations, particularly for those that are explicit in calling for the preservation of its values and tradition.

This threat does not only affect nations but any type of community. Individuals are generally grouped under a national, ethnic, religious and racial identity. This creates a division between insiders and outsiders. There are those who belong and those who do not belong in virtue of their differing nationality, religious beliefs, and ethnic or racial origin. The outsiders are most often perceived as posing a threat to the values to which the insiders are committed and to the identity of the community to which they belong.

That is why the foreigner is mostly unwelcome. If we give him hospitality, it will be with a set of conditions: you cannot enter our community unless you declare your name and identity, your allegiance and your beliefs, unless you speak our language and conform to our customs and ways of doing things. We cannot know whether the foreigner, the migrant or the refugee has come as a friend or as an enemy. In consequence, we cannot give him hospitality without conditions.

But as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has asked: Do we not have an ethical obligation to give the foreigner, the refugee or the migrant such hospitality?

I do not have an ethical duty to welcome you into my home because I know that you’re my friend and that you won’t harm me. This would be self-serving. I have such a duty towards you because, being a foreigner, a migrant or a refugee, you’ve exposed your vulnerability to me, and this commands me to make what is mine yours. My ethical duty requires that I have regard for your welfare before mine.

Most countries have thus far resorted to two typical ways of dealing with the foreigner. Either the foreigner has immediately and promptly been excluded from the community, whether by putting him to death or through forced displacement. Or he has been included through assimilation. He has been made to conform to the way of doing things in the community and has been constrained to speak the language spoken by its members. In both cases, the aim has been to remove and do away with what makes the foreigner a stranger to the community, what causes it with unease. This is the element of the unknown that he embodies.

We are yet to imagine a community that would not resort to violence against the foreigner. Exclusion and inclusion by assimilation are violent ways of getting rid of or taming their strangeness.

What would a community look like that could welcome the foreigner, the migrant or the refugee without conditions? To imagine the possibility of such a community is perhaps one of the most urgent and pressing tasks facing us today.

More than 70-million people are forced migrants, according to the International Red Cross’ World Disasters Report 2012. More than one in every 100 of the world’s citizens is without a home. It would be a failure of our humanity to ignore the duty that calls us to welcome the homeless, the dispossessed or the exiled, as well as the duty to rethink the nature of community, identity and belonging in the face of this crisis.

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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