“You’re probably surprised to find us so inhospitable,” said the man, “but hospitality isn’t a custom here, and we don’t need any visitors.”
‘If this quotation from Kafka’s Castle seems strange to us, it is because we cannot believe that there is a culture, a society or “a form of social connection without a principle of hospitality. But what is left of this principle of hospitality today, or ethics in general, when fences are erected at the borders, or even “hospitality” itself is considered a crime?’
How hospitable are you? Let us know how you feel about this subject in the comments box below.
Being hospitable has traditionally been seen as a noble quality, an indicator of a generous and civilised culture. However, this image of hospitality has been eroded and, in our contemporary society, the forbidding face of exclusion, racism and inhospitable attitudes is showing itself.
What is lacking in all this is the quality of empathy. Much of this approach entails a ‘failure of empathy,’ discussed in a previous post. Instead, an ‘us and them’ attitude often prevails.
Newspaper headlines such as the following reflect this:
‘WHEN IN ROME’ All immigrants must be forced to take language classes if they don’t speak English on arrival in UK, MPs say’ (The Sun 5.1.17)
Britain’s migration revolution: Home Secretary Sajid Javid unveils the biggest immigration reform for decades – vowing to end EU free movement, give no preference to European workers and insist that firms try to hire Brits first (Daily Mail 1.10.18)
Obviously, as history shows, such attitudes are age-old. As if in prophetic response to this Derrida asks:
‘That is where the question of hospitality begins: must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term, in all its possible extensions, before being able and so as to be able to welcome him into our country? If he was already speaking our language, with all that that implies, if we already shared everything that is shared with a language, would the foreigner still be a foreigner and could we speak of asylum or hospitality in regard to him?’ (Derrida)
Should we realistically expect immigrants who do not speak English to learn our language when they arrive? If so, is this because we cannot abide people who are not like us? Perhaps there is a sense that speaking our language would make immigrants more like ‘us’, more understandable, less ‘other?’
Yet can we ever ‘understand’ how hard it might be for some to arrive in a new country with a ‘strange’ culture and have to learn a foreign way of speaking? If we have not experienced being a refugee, can we even imagine how awful it would be to feel so dispossessed?
In the U.S., immigrants were assaulted because they were overheard speaking their own language.
It may, indeed, ideally be easier in some ways if immigrants were able to speak English. However, there are so many other pressures on immigrants; the complexities and commitment of language learning may be unmanageable and unrealistic. Perhaps we could find it within ourselves to welcome distressed and traumatised people here without imposing further stipulations on them.
However, even the most hospitable people will have limits. Derrida postulates an extreme position in his deconstruction of the notion of hospitality:
‘… absolute hospitality requires that I open up my home and that I give not only to the foreigner (provided with a family name, with the social status of being a foreigner, etc.), but to the absolute, unknown, anonymous other, and that I give place to them, that I let them come, that I let them arrive, and take place in the place I offer them, without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names.’
Derrida knows that this is degree of hospitality, this total altruism, is an impossibility, yet he believes he has defined pure hospitality in its full meaning and this is important.
His deconstruction of the term down to its ‘purest’ form makes us think; he does not offer solutions, he is aware there are no answers to this paradoxical issue, but perhaps it might encourage us to stretch previous hardened boundaries.
He is aware that it is impossible to offer hospitality without it involving even a modicum of power and control. We cannot truly and totally anonymously or altruistically give to another, but his deconstruction reminds us that perhaps we might be able to try harder:
Conditional hospitality is not ‘true’ hospitality because it is given only on expectation of a return or offered out of decorum and therefore without responsibility. Unconditional hospitality, which is the ‘truest’ hospitality, is at the same time impossible because in practice one can always be more generous, more welcoming and give more of oneself and one’s home until there is complete self-effacement.
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Could you open up your home and offer hospitality to a stranger or have you already done so? Please share your views and experiences in the comments below. Thanks! Linda.