Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In Portrait of the Anti-Semite (1945), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) argued: “The Jew is a man whom other men look upon as a Jew;… it is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew“. And in Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) theater play The Merchant of Venice, the character Shylock brilliantly asks: “Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?” Ignoring the reality that people’s identities go beyond a religious group, a sexual orientation or the colour of their skins, has so far led to wars, slaughters and genocides.
In the first episode of the third season of The Office, the hilariously terrible boss Michael Scott outed his employee Oscar Martinez in front of everyone, so Oscar threatened to quit, mostly because of the unrelenting allusions to his sexuality on the workplace. But to make sure that he would not sue Dunder Mifflin Inc., the company offered him a big vacation and begged him to stay. Oscar announced in that first episode that he would go to Europe with his partner. He came back in the fourteenth episode, Michael insisted on throwing a party for him.
OSCAR: I really have no preference. We don’t even have to have a party.
MICHAEL: No, hey- hey- Don’t be ridiculous. Of course we are going to have a party. A celebration of Oscar. Oscar night. And I want it to be Oscar-specific!
OSCAR: Michael, I…
MICHAEL: No, no. I mean, not… not because you are gay. Your gayness does not define you. Your Mexicanness is what defines you, to me, and I think we should celebrate Oscar’s Mexicanity. So… Phyllis? I want you to go find firecrackers and a chihuahua. Pam, in the frozen food section, Swanson makes a delightul chimichanga.
OSCAR: Why don’t you have me riding in on a donkey, into the office, like Pepe?
MICHAEL: Ah, a burro, of course. If Oscar wants a donkey, let’s get him one.
In the first episode of the fourth season (Fun Run), there is a similar scene in the conference room.
MICHAEL: Kelly, you are Hindu. So you believe in Buddha.
KELLY (Mindy Kaling, The Mindy Project): That’s Buddhists.
MICHAEL: Are you sure?
MICHAEL (to Sadiq, the IT guy who wears a turban): What are you?
SADIQ (Omi Vaidya): Well, if you’re gonna reduce my identity to my religion, then I’m Sikh. But I also like hip-hop and NPR. And I’m restoring a 1967 corvette in my spare time.
MICHAEL: Okay. So one Sikh, and…
The humour in The Office mostly lies in Michael’s narrowmindedness and lack of emotional intelligence. He innocently hurts people’s feelings while attempting to achieve the opposite. For instance, in order to fight against sexism, he will decide to take all the women in the company to the shopping mall (Season 3, episode 22).
Amartya Sen (born in 1933) is an Indian economist and philosopher. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences in 1998. He tackles the question of reducing people to a religion or a skin tone in an essay entitled Identity & Violence – The illusion of destiny (2006). In that essay, he denounces the partitioning of the world into civilizations and the unbalanced attention that is paid to people’s religion or culture, compared to other features of their identities:
“In fact, a major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture. (…) Paying no attention to other groups to which the same persons also belong (involving economic, social, political, or other cultural connections), then much of importance in human life is altogether lost, and individuals are put into little boxes.
The appalling effects of the miniaturization of people is the subject matter of this book“
Amartya Sen rejects the idea of a “clash of civilizations”. He is opposed to Samuel Huntington (1927-2008), who conveys his vision of the world as a federation of religions and civilizations (and not as a collection of people) in his famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. In that book, Huntington contrasts Western civilization with “Islamic civilization”, “Hindu civilization”, etc. Amartya Sen observes: “Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this alledgedly primal way of seeing the differences between people” From the prologue of his essay, Amartya Sen already writes:
“Civilizational or religious partitioning of the world population yields a “solitarist” approach to human identity, which sees human beings as members of exactly one group (…) A solitarist approach can be a good way of misunderstanding nearly everyone in the world. In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups – we belong to all of them. The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in outer space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk (preferably in English). Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity.“
But Sen also writes that we give ourselves freedom to decide which part of our identity has more weight and importance: “For example, when going to a dinner, one’s identity as a vegetarian may be rather more crucial than one’s identity as a linguist” (Sen does have a sense of humor). When I interview for a job, I tend to leave aside my identity as a fan of tattoos or as a women’s rights activist. I miniaturize myself into the box of marketing managers, or alumni of an elite business school, keeping quiet about my love life, my shoe size or my political views.
However, most of the time, it is not up to us. Other people will decide which part of our identity is predominant. The Tutsi will see that the Hutu is a Hutu and disregard his being a good swimmer or a loving father. I remember that one day in Berlin, in a conference room at the Deutsche Bahn, there was a new colleague, born and raised in Germany, but in a Korean family. He presented himself as an expert in sales and an advocate of green management, but it was as if everyone around the table only heard one thing: he is Korean. The marketing director started to talk about her experience at Hyundai, the business consultant talked about a fruit he discovered in Seoul, I started a conversation about the students under pressure and high rates of suicide among young Koreans and the digitalization of education in South Korea… I wondered how often that poor guy had to justify his Asian origins. But I was glad that for once, I didn’t have to hear people telling me “I have not been in Subsaharian Africa but I went to Morocco and Egypt once! Do you speak Cameroonian? What do you eat over there”
It all reminds me of the opening theme of Weeds: