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  • Writer's picturegabriellehalpern

Reform Magazine: "The next one and abroad"

Column published in Réforme Magazine on 22 February 2021

The Bible encourages us to love our neighbour and the stranger. But why is it difficult to love one and not the other? Doctor of Philosophy Gabrielle Halpern shares her thoughts on why we’re mainly attracted to what is like us.

"Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" is perhaps one of the best-known verses in the Bible. Depending on the translation, 'neighbour' can vary with 'fellow man' or 'others'. This verse, which calls for altruism, empathy and benevolence, is the basis of a relationship with others that has permeated a large part of our ethics. However, if the biblical text tells us that we must love our neighbour as ourselves, it does so once... whereas we are invited several times to love strangers. Thus we find in Leviticus the following verse: "The stranger who stays with you shall be to you as one of your countrymen, and you shall love him as yourself" or again in Deuteronomy: "You shall love the stranger".

This distinction between the neighbour and the stranger calls for a completely different reading of the famous verse. What if "you shall love your neighbour as yourself" were stated only once, because loving one's neighbour is extremely natural and obvious and does not require any particular effort? It is not difficult to love one's neighbour, whereas it can be particularly complicated to love a stranger.

"Humans fear contact with the unknown".

In his book, Crowds and Power, one of the greatest European thinkers of the 20th century, Elias Canetti, tells us that human beings fear contact with the unknown more than anything else in the world, and that all the distances, all the behaviour they adopt, is dictated by this phobia of contact. Loving what is close to us, what we know, is very simple; dealing with what we don't know, with what is foreign to us, is a totally different matter!

Why is there such anxiety about the 'distant', as opposed to the 'next-door'? It's on account of a kind of 'homogeneity drive'; that is, we're driven towards what is similar to us, towards what we already know. Intrinsically, because of our terror of uncertainty, we are unable to fully and naturally embrace singularity, diversity, otherness.

This drive for homogeneity leads us to associate only with people who look like us, to be interested only in what we already know, to follow social network accounts that correspond to our own, and so we build a homogenising bubble around ourselves.

We love to put the people we meet into boxes to reassure ourselves, so that they seem illusionarily closer. We multiply the "next-door", because we're terrified of coming face to face with difference, with dissimilarity, with radical and irreducible otherness. The great current trend towards the widespread use of first names - "let's be on first-name terms? it's easier"! The great current trend of being on first-name terms, a factor of familiarity and closeness, stems from our impulse for homogeneity - we're on first-name terms to give ourselves the illusion that we are close, so as not to have to deal with the difference of the other...

All our neighbours are strangers and it's precisely because they're different from us that we must respect them. As long as we haven't accepted the fundamental strangeness of the other, of all those around us, we will be unable to understand their uniqueness and to learn to truly love them, one day.


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