Monday, January 26, 2009
I have had the luck, and the honour of being able to travel. I have experienced things unimaginable to most. I know the feel of the Taj Mahal. I know the taste of the Mediterranean. I know the bite of the Andean night.
These travels have made me acutely aware of something we in the developed world have lost, and with that loss a swathe of obligations we forgot.
One night last summer found me stranded in the Indian highlands with two countrymen. Our packs were empty, and we were four hours by bus from shelter with no buses left to catch. As the night crept up we prepared to take shelter in an apparently abandoned building site, going so far as to draw lots for shifts on watch.
A man named Rajinta came to our rescue. He took us, all three, to his two room home. We sat and ate with his uncle while the rest of the family crowded into the kitchen doorway to see what we made of the meal, a good and simple fare. That night the three of us, and Rajinta's uncle shared the living room, while 5 other members of the family squeezed into the tiny kitchen, blackened by smoke.
We did what tourists do when trying to communicate with people without a shared language. We took out all our possessions that were beyond Rajinta's horizons, cameras and ipods, glowsticks and passports. My two countrymen took photos of us with the family, and in the morning, having milked the family's cow, we headed off with promises to write and send the photos. I have rarely been given something so great by people with so little, I have rarely been so moved.
Half a year later, after a conversation in an Oxford coffeehouse I write to my two travelling acquaintances asking Rajinta's address which they had written down. They had both lost it, no photos were sent, no news about organic farming, no words of thanks. These two young men are not bad people, but our behaviour betrays our simple lack of understanding. We do not understand hospitality, so we do not comply with its rules, and nor do we appreciate its value. My momentary feeling indicates the moral resonance of true hospitality, that it faded indicates something amiss in our culture.
Hospitality has been ruthlessly reduced to the principle of mutual aid, and explained by the evolutionary advantage offered by such a principle. Yet though "mutuality" implies some kind of reciprocality it fails to capture half of the hospitality relation. We owe Rajinta our thanks and the photos that we promised his family, though they are in immediate need of neither.
Recently great advances have been made in studying what is known as "the ethic of care". In other words, ethicists have stooped from their ivory towers of infinite moral obligations that stretch to the doorway of their offices, and worlds devoid of moral value which likewise end with their offices, to recognise the incredibly powerful ethical relation expressed in caring. Care sees the virtually endless prioritisation of the receiver's welfare over the givers. Yet despite this the relationship is reciprocal, nothing is asked, but recognition of the gift is morally demanded. We can all think of the bitterness caused by the failure to thank care, though this rarely leads to care's immediate cessation (so strong is the relation).
This type of reciprocality, thoroughly uncaptured by reductionist understandings of mutual aid, is a key element of the hospitality relation. It is why I still need to find, and thank Rajinta. Hospitality is in this sense what has been termed a "thick" moral relation with a number of emotional and valuative dimensions, yet its demands are clear, the prioritisation of that which is other.
What is to be found in the UK in general is an emasculated, hollow hospitality. The hospitality of overstayed welcomes, extended reluctantly to family and friends. Guestrooms without guests, only occupants. We forget that one offers one's own bed, not because it is the most comfy but because it is one's own. Hospitality sees an incredibly pure prioritisation of the other's welfare, and takes pride in this prioritisation. In 21 years I have rarely been offered the bed of a friend while he or she made do with the mattress on the floor. Yet while passing Christmas 7500 kilometers from home, that I would sleep anywhere but in his bed is unthinkable to Luis, my friend of less than a month.
In on the Jewish Question Marx declared that in abolishing property as a qualification for the vote, property is destroyed in the realm of the state as state. I believe the situation of hospitality in Western culture is the reverse. While few pockets of sincere hospitality endure, chiefly among exceptional members of working class, the bulk of us have rendered up our obligation to show hospitality to strangers to the realm of the state as state.
What does this mean? Last night my friend began to suffer excruciating pain in her arm with no apparent cause. She, like me, is a foreigner living and working in Venezuela. With no insurance she was reluctant to go to hospital, yet after suffering in relative silence for 20 hours we went, at 2 in the morning, to the local clinic. There she was treated immediately, for free. She is now receiving a free course of drugs to control the pain and remove the muscular tension.
While most believe all have a right to necessary medical attention, and while this belief may also easily fit into the frame of "evolutionary advantageous mutual aid", I believe the extension of national services with no expectation of repayment to someone thousands of miles from home is also an act of hospitality.
The British NHS is an incredible institution. It offers emergency care to everyone who can get to it, whether they can pay or not. This said the hospitality it offers to non EU residents is limited to this emergency care.
But when this hospitality by the state as state represents its abdication by individuals it is a moral failing. State provision doesn't exempt individuals from hospitality's calls, even if we prove deaf to them. Nor can the state provide hospitality comprehensively. Hospitality implies the prioritisation of the other (in the case of the state this means other than its own population) and as such it runs in contra to nationalism and the ideology of state that identifies its own population as the primary object of concern.
We are left in a situation that sees a set of moral obligations that still resonate with us delegated to the state, an agent that can only ever fulfil them incompletely and against its nature. Gradually as we become ever more estranged from hospitality the force with which we once delegated it to the state, in demanding it recognise the right to asylum among other dimensions, fades. We are left with neither hospitality not its shadow in the provision of the state.
The resurrection of hospitality offers us a rewarding opportunity that could form part of the antidote to the politics of fear and hatred with which Western societies have increasingly been infected. This can only begin with the actions of individuals, the deep mark Rajinta has left on me testifies to their power