L'Altérité: our view on others
A word with subtle saving power in our present predicament
Over the past twenty-five years since I settled in France, I have been asked innumerable times about why I came. I have since distilled my answer to this: I came for love. That is either a conversation starter or a stopper. It’s a stopper when people fear I’m veering dangerously into uncomfortable personal territory. It’s a starter when people sense there’s a much bigger story beneath. There is.
Instead of love, I could also reply that I came to experience and embrace l’alterité. That would be just as true–and not too far removed from love.
L’alterité is not an everyday French word, so forget its conversational benefits. No, this is a word intended to influence the way you view those who are alien to you, which also determines your very experience of life. It is a word to transform the way the world turns. Call it a slight inflection that might just avert our current path of destruction.
Don’t count on any English translation (“otherness”) to save you from perplexity. L’alterité is noun that requires a verb, such as: embrasser l’altérité, intégrer l’altérité, respecter l’altérité, célébrer l’altérité. It invites us to recognize another person (or culture) for the sake of their differences. Not in spite of their differences, or with tolerance for their differences. No, this is about the recognition of another person (or culture) with the whole of what we may find alien.
Let’s take the well-known American “melting pot” as an example of what altérité is NOT. Americans come from all origins, but social acceptance requires adherence to the American way of life. This why the subgroups are always hyphenated: “afro-americans”, “Indian-Americans”, or even “Irish-Americans.” In short, when I as an American recognize you as an American. I agree to tolerate or ignore what hides on the other side of the hyphen, so long as you behave like an American and ensure that you are American above any other identity.
Accepting l’altérité, in contrast, would prescribe full inclusion of the other's differences. For example: “I see that you descend from an Indian tribe (that my forefathers almost eradicated) and desire to understand how those traditions inform the way you experience life.”
L’altérité is a concept formulated in French because I believe the French are somewhat more inclined to it. Don’t get me wrong, racism, prejudice, and cultural biais are rampant in France as elsewhere, and the wrongs of its colonial past weigh heavily upon the collective conscience. Nevertheless, I have always sensed a real difference, compared to the USA and Great Britain, with respect to colonialized cultures and other “races”. Notice that in France, you never have to indicate your race on public form. For that matter, a race referred to as “Caucasian” does not even exist, nor does the notion of “white supremacy”. In the USA…well, you know the story.
The French colonization of Indochina, beyond its disastrous political outcome, created a genuine affinity, even something of a cultural love affair, between the French and the Vietnamese. There was an enormous degree of métissage, and to this day many French fantasize over Indochina and vice versa.
The same is true, although to a lesser degree, for the French colonies in Africa. There is no such thing in France as “afro-French”. Immigrants from various ex-colonies have French residency or even citizenship. If citizens, they are French by law, though remaining culturally distinct. It is therefore possible to honor them in their differences. That is why you will see people of various African origins walking the streets of the 10th and 18th arrondissements, wearing colorful traditional attire. It doesn't mean they are offered equal access to opportunities.
The relationship of the French with the Maghreb (Northern Africa) is most problematic because of radicalized Islam. Such poison set aside, we can observe a genuine intercultural fascination between France and Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
France is certainly not some paragon for altérité, but it is a culture in which it is at least possible to seriously discuss the matter. It is a culture in which the concept can be expressed.
L’altérité is not limited to cultural differences. Anglophones will recognize the catchy phrase “Vive la différence!” which happens to be used only by Anglophones to mean something along the lines of “celebrate the differences between the sexes”.
In an increasingly gender-neutral Western society, what does it mean to honor a woman in her womanhood or a man in his manhood?
Here too, the French seem to have a slightly greater tolerance for women being women, instead of molding them into men for the sake of gender equality. A man can still get by with complimenting a woman on something for which he would not compliment at man without being reprimanded. There are plenty of machos around, for sure, but a respect for altérité would result in men learning to fully appreciate feminine attributes in all realms and all levels of society. It is different from feminism, whose goal is to institute gender equality and somehow compensate for the injustices of the historically pervasive patriarchy.
No doubt the most challenging realm in which to respect altérité is that of religion. How can you honor someone else’s beliefs when you hold your own (religious) beliefs to be absolute truth? The very word of ____. To deal with this conundrum as a society, the French invented another concept called laîcité, requiring that all things religious be excluded from the public sphere. You will never hear a French president pronounce the words "God bless France!"
The only acceptable public expression is "Vive la République ! Vive la France !"
This is an expedient approach, but not at all an example of altérité.
Altérité would rather suggest :
“Not only do I honor you in your public function, but I also honor you as a Jew (or a Protestant, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu).”
Perhaps you now grasp how, at this time in history when we are collectively only a few words away from total destruction, the word altérité holds a saving power. There are others of course, that are also required, such as la retenue (restraint), le pardon (forgiveness), la miséricorde (mercy), la compassion (compassion), la fraternité (brotherhood), and la tolérance (tolerance).
I began with love, and that is where I will end. I came to France for love, and you are still wondering what that meant.
France, and Paris in particular, is overrun with Americans (and not only Americans) set on living their French fantasy. This is a natural phase, just like falling in love, but imagine a relationship that never goes beyond, in which you only take what you want, and reject what you don't want.
Enduring and meaningful relationships require engagement with a person on every level. You will easily love some aspects but will need to learn to understand and accept those traits you don't. The person you love is an indivisible person who can only be loved as a whole.
The same is true for a country's culture. The same generations of French men and women who perfected every manner of beauty are also those who devised elaborate bureaucracies and an omnipresent State. The same culture that coined joie de vivre is also one of colère, prone to strikes and riots. And also one of depression, with a tendency for self-critique and disempowerment. The same country that imposed an egalitarian society also perpetuates many forms of elitism. The same nation that developed one of the world's most comprehensive legal codes is also one in which so many forms of disorder seem to be tolerated. The same emperor Napoleon who waged war across Europe also established that very same and enduring code civil as a foundation for enduring justice. Last but not least, the same system that squashes its enterprises and its workforce with one of the heaviest tax burdens of any country in the world, will also save your life from a health crisis and not take a penny from you.
That is the France I learned to love in the fullness of its altérité. It is perhaps l'altérité that I came to learn, in order to know love.