In an era of globalisation and talk of border walls, it is timely that Verso have reprinted Ryszard Kapuscinski’s small book The Other. The book benefits from his travels as a journalist, and in it he recounts the striking story of Liberia’s civil war where in the morning rebels would battle government forces and then in the afternoon the two groups would come together in the marketplace. For Kapuscinski this stands to illustrate his first point that the Other occupies the fluid categories of individual or representative of race or nation depending on the circumstances. Although in human history cultures have routinely been suspicious or hostile to other cultures, in the interests of peace (bearing in mind that war benefits none) we can make a choice about whether we recognise the individual or the representative. This is particularly important in an era of mass media where we may be informed but lack the deeper understanding and connection that comes, as he says, in true community. Kapuscinski shines a spotlight on our current situation where there is plenty of talk – a supposed ‘conversation’ – but the talk is often about people rather than with them.
In order to create peace we need to go beyond what he calls recognition, which we could also term tolerance, to understanding and responsibility for others, which might bring to mind the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus advocates responsibility not just for our own community members but for those who may be deemed Other. Interestingly, building on Levinas, Kapuscinski writes in explicitly Christian terms of seeing God in the Other, of deliberately making the Other my priority. A relationship with God is sometimes thought of in transcendent terms – a vertical relationship with someone ‘up there’. But in the Gospels, and indeed also in the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic writings, a relationship with God is played out through relationships with the human Other – a horizontal connection. (How do we meet Jesus? By visiting prisoners and the sick, etc.) There is a certain practicality here that avoids me-centred spirituality, ironically perhaps, as in a secular age Christianity is sometimes thought of as simply adding a supernatural layer onto existing arrangements, of conjuring a cosmic best friend. Kapuscinski, rather, shows the value of a creed that encourages, at a time when mass media insists on the priority of myself, the difficult but valuable notion of making the stranger my priority.