UNBOXED: Existentialism, Postcolonialism & the Other

Others and otherness is a major theme of Existentialism and Postcolonialism, two popular philosophical movements in modern thought.

Sartre, who borrowed the term ‘existential’ from Heidegger, coined the term ‘Existentialism’ as the name for his own skeptical and individual-centered school of thought, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger as forerunners.  Sartre, like these others before him, argued that we must have the courage to question what we believe and recreate our beliefs for ourselves, giving our own meaning to our lives rather than letting it be supplied by others.  While it is easy to accept the authority of politics, religion and science without question, we are each responsible for our beliefs and doubts, and we can choose to be revolutionary individuals and inspire others.

Fanon, friend of Sartre and fellow Existentialist, was born on the Caribbean island and French colony of Martinique, and he became a central inspiration of Postcolonialism, the study of the aftereffects of European domination and colonization of the world.  Fanon experienced racism in Martinique, France, and North Africa, and as a psychiatrist he argued that racism has a destructive impact on the mental and physical health of the oppressed.  Modern studies have shown that it has a similar impact on the oppressor as well.

The gaze of the other is important in the thinking of both Sartre and Fanon.  In Sartre’s play No Exit, the frustrated main character famously declares, “Hell is other people!”.  We find the gaze of others frightening, because we are afraid of the impact they can have on our own opinion of ourselves.  Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said that it is strange that everyone loves themselves more than anyone else, but values the opinions of others about themselves more than they value their own.  Because we are insecure, we are terrorized by the other and the impact that their judgements can have on the meaning of our lives.  If we face the other with good faith in the possibility of positive change, interaction with others can be powerfully transformative, but we are afraid that it could take all meaning away and leave us with nothing.

For both Sartre and Fanon, racism is a primary example of the frightening but potentially liberating gaze of the other.  Sartre wrote about Antisemitism in the years following the Nazi occupation of Paris and racism against Jews in both France and Germany.  Fanon wrote about racism against Africans in European colonies such as the Americas, and both wrote about racism against Africans and Arabs in North Africa.  Africans, Arabs and others are devalued to affirm the glory and achievements of Europeans, including colonial and financial control of the globe.  When we categorize ourselves and others as superior or inferior, we are avoiding the difficult but fruitful task of individual critical thinking.

It is easy to treat others as categories rather than as individuals, but if we treat others as genuine human individuals it allows us to change who we are as individuals, if we embrace the opportunity.  We each change throughout our lives, as we are changed by others, whether we embrace this or not.  If we accept ourselves and the impact that others can and will have on us, we have more choice in what we want our lives to mean.  If we accept that we are insecure and do not have total control, we can open up to ourselves and others, embracing change and interaction with others not as a threat, but as an adventure.

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