Them the Jews. Them the Yazidis. Them the Muslims. Them the Christians. Them the Blacks. Them the Whites. Them the Natives. Them the Gays. Them the Trans. Them the Immigrants. There is a never-ending list of “thems”, but the only thing missing here is a loud echoing voice and an extended index finger pointing at the “others”.
Our scrambled landscape seems to bedevil us once more, with humanity’s oldest and greatest problem, the fear of the other who is different than us. Something seems to be devolving us to the point that people of today are embracing the attitudes and behaviours that people of yesterday swore had no place in this world, disregarding the importance of our common humanity in favor of fearing the other.
Why does “fearing the other” matter?
There is a fine line between fearing someone that is different and disliking them, and it can easily snowball into hating, oppressing, and engaging in violence against the other. When fear manifests into something more, it is in the absence of tolerance and without respect for the other, and it is why the difference between people will seem greater than it really is. Then we begin to hate our neighbors and open the prison of past conflicts: religious differences, ethnic differences, racial differences, tribal differences—disregarding that each of us makes the other better.
What else could drive people to dig aimlessly, hoping to uncover anything that might allow for more distance between them and the other? Perhaps we should blame the disruption taking place along economic and cultural lines, as it may have something to do with the attitudes and behaviors directed at the other. Perhaps it is the biproduct of people who are in desperate pursuit of security, which may lead them to end up on the fringes. Perhaps that is what fans the flames of agitation and insecurity, without any simple answers, people turn to asserting superiority over the other.
Dinner with a Holocaust Survivor
Imagine a world where you are in your early teen years and in the middle of your day you and your family are rounded up and taken to the town center and then shoved onto train carts. Imagine getting out of the train carts and being welcomed by the smell of burning bodies and seeing piles of clothes stacked and resembling a mountain. Imagine getting split from your sister, mother, grandmother, and any other female family members without getting the chance to tell them goodbye and that you love them, and then finding out what happened to them a few days later. Imagine the next few years of your life being spent doing hard labour while being slowly starved and doing everything you can to avoid getting chosen to go on the death march. Imagine watching life slowly exit the bodies of your male family members, bit by bit, until all that was left was their lifeless body. Imagine knowing the depravity of everything going around you and that you are powerless to do anything about it. Then one day you are told that this nightmare is over and the soldiers who freed you tell you that you are free, but by that point, almost all your family has been killed in the Holocaust and the entirety of your hometown was destroyed.
That was the Holocaust experience that was forced upon “them the Jews”, all made possible thanks to the weaponization of fear and by successfully dehumanizing other human beings. The survivors of the Holocaust experience are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and while many have passed of old age, I had the chance to have dinner with a Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenage boy and who practically lost all his family. Unless you knew this about them, you would never be able to tell that they were a Holocaust survivor because of how they approached life and how they spoke about others.
New York with a Yazidi-American
Imagine being a child and living in a remote town and then one day you are told by your parents that your family must flee from ISIS fighters. Imagine seeing ISIS fighters driving towards your town as your family drives away. Imagine having to watch your father drive back to your town, while ISIS fighters are getting closer, so that he can get your family’s documents and so that your family does not get split up. Imagine your only refuge being the top of a mountain, as long as ISIS fighters do not drive up that mountain themselves. Imagine seeing news crews come in on helicopters to film live footage of what was transpiring and who can leave at moments notice, while everyone else around you is delirious and in panic. Then, one day, you are told that this nightmare is over and that you are going to the United States of America, but now you have to try to make sense of what transpired as you transition from adolescence into adulthood, and while you try to make sense of all the other things that youth your age try to make sense of during this period of their life.
That was the ISIS experience that was forced upon “them the Yazidis”, all made possible thanks to the weaponization of fear and by successfully dehumanizing other human beings. The survivors of the ISIS experience ranged in age, and I happened to be a part of an international cohort in New York that included a Yazidi-American, a child at the time of her ISIS experience and now a young adult. I sat and talked with them, learning about their family’s story and the path that led them to the United States of America. Their takeaway from their ISIS experience was that they needed to be a strong advocate for education as it was the most important tool that was available to prevent the dehumanization of the others.
Honoring the past. Imagining the future.
When we take a look at what people are saying about others and how they are behaving towards others, how can it not feel as though we have forgotten where we have been, who we have been, and what we had hoped to become?
Past generations have survived the worst that mankind has to offer, but what did they know that most of us fail to realize when it comes to this thing called life? Was it the thinking that, as long as we were living, then there was a chance for a better tomorrow and that a new beginning would always be possible? Was it the thinking that there was no such thing as a permanent defeat or permanent victory in life? Was it the thinking that the stereotyping of an entire group of people would be the end of us all? Was it that, despite all our differences, our common humanity mattered more? Whatever it may have been, we better figure out that thinking process.
Homes: A Refugee Story
Perhaps the answer to what past generations have known after they overcame the depravity that mankind is capable of can be relearned in the book Homes: A Refugee Story, which details one child’s life in war-torn Syria up until his family hears the symphonic words that countless refugees have danced to, “Welcome to Canada”. This child, Bakr, spends most of his childhood accompanied by the war experience, and he attempts to make sense of killings while also trying to do child-like things like play video games with friends. Bakr also sheds light on his learnings from surviving the war experience, some taught to him by his father and uncle. There are three eye-opening passages that align with the purpose of this article and for those unfamiliar with the realities of the war experience.
On page 44, Bakr shares what his father told him about living throughout the war, “Father sat me down many times and told me that I couldn’t let fear rule my life. ‘Life must always go on, Bakr. Death doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Even life itself doesn’t matter. What matters is living your life with your family with the people you love. We love each other, hard, and hold on tight. What we face, we face together. Together we move forward and every little happiness we can have, we enjoy. We cannot let hatred and fear stop us from living.’”
On page 121, Bakr shares his thoughts about the depravity of the war by contrasting it with important figures in his life, “I loved my God, my religion. But, sometimes deep in that place where my fear hides, I couldn’t understand why I had to live like this. How could the God of my gentle father be the same God of those crazy fanatics who killed in the name of Islam?”
On page 138, Bakr shares what his uncle told him about overcoming torture, “Weeks later, when I got up the courage to ask him if it hurt to be beaten up, he sat thinking for a long time. Finally, he looked me square in the eyes and said, ’No, little one, it didn’t Alhamdulilah. When those men hit you, your mind goes somewhere else. You only think of your family, and you don’t feel the pain. You just see those beautiful faces.’”
These passages do not need any translating.
Demos – kratos
Thankfully for all of us, we live in a democratic and safe society where we can afford to approach this predicament and look at those with their index fingers extended and pointed at the other and their communication as being an extension of their identity – shattered. If they are “shattered” people, how can we help them begin again because they may want to change how they interact with others, but they just do not know how. In any case, helping them put their shattered pieces back together again does bring the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone involved, but nowhere is it guaranteed.
Democracy does not answer any of the questions in this article, it simply allows unbound people the chance to seek out the answers that work for them. Thinking is behaving, and there is something important about the hard intellectual work and the deep thinking that develops the mind, which might be the only way to stop us from devolving.