In 1942, Albert Camus published The Stranger, one of the important novels of the 20th century. We are in colonial Algeria, during WWII. The main character – the emotionally detached, innately passive, and anomic Meursault – shoots an Arab on the beach. Later, he will say “It is so easy to kill an Arab”. This horrible sentence has been discussed often and we don’t really know why Meursault kills. He says to the judge that it is because of the blinding sun. The victim had also flashed a knife. What did Camus meant? Many possibilities have been hypothesized: a metaphor for colonial repression, for the insensitivity of the colonial ruler; a representation of the absurdity of anyone’s rational life, when not infused with feelings; an image for how easily people are disposed of during wars.
One thing is certain: Meursault is defining an “Other”. Constructing the other is at the basis of marginalization, exclusion, discrimination, persecution and war, everywhere and at all times. Reducing the individual to a stereotype (here an “Arab”, elsewhere a Jew, a Hazara, a Tutsi, a lower caste, etc.) is a way of negating the complexities of each human life, of essentialising one characteristic among many others and direct one’s wrath to it, of dehumanising the person so that disregarding their rights doesn’t affect us. It is the operationalisation of the “Us and Them” mentality, as always. Attaching collective tags to individual identities has been the tool of all dictatorships.
Human diversity is and will remain a challenge. Whatever is unknown is always somehow a threat. It is especially so as the majority of mankind is now composed of city dwellers. Most of us now live in urban environments that we must share with numerous other people. We have all quite recently migrated to cities, sometimes across continents or oceans. Perforce, we now share the noise, smells, quirks and twists of our neighbours. We are in close contact with their habits, their rituals and their traditions. Our communities interpenetrate, whether we like it or not, and often we don’t. Individual freedom and communal decision-making may clash: it often does within families everywhere in the world. The value structures of our communities are being transformed and challenged. The notion of community itself becomes blurred as one can become member of several communities at the same time.
We are also experiencing a return of the siege mentality since the fear of “terrorism” has recently taken hold of international politics again. States of the Global North seem to have defined a whole civilisation as carrying the threat of terrorism. Authorities all over the world, in democratic and non-democratic countries alike, are using this malleable concept for their own purposes against real or imagined enemies, in order to justify using brutal force.
Tolerance, respect and acceptance, as virtues, may be difficult to practice, individually or collectively. The media, when choosing to narrate stories in certain ways, often pour oil on the fire of our divisions. We are not naturally immune from the influence of hate speech and we often react gregariously. Reasonable accommodation of the Other’s difference is never an easy exercise and difficult social choices must be made.
However, we cannot afford to all be indifferent or anomic like Meursault. In spite of his apparent indifference to everything, Meursault does make a moral choice in killing another human being. Faced with evil deeds, we must make the moral choice of being forces of good. To neutralize those preaching divisions, we must deconstruct this age-old human tendency of dismissing outright what is different and to delineate paths for embracing what is valuable in our differences and should be welcomed and celebrated, as well as for identifying what is unacceptable human behaviour anywhere and at any time, whatever the tradition or purpose used to justify it.
Defying the prejudgements and reaching out to those who are despised, marginalized or persecuted is the essence of ethical behaviour and the foundation for all human rights work.
François Crépeau is Hans & Tamar Professor of Public International Law at McGill University. He chairs the Second Echenberg Human Rights Conference, the Global Conference on Human Rights and Diverse Societies, which opened on October 7th in Montreal. The op-ed is adapted from his opening address to the Young leaders’ Forum that preceded the conference.