Natalie Fraser explores discrimation through the lens of existentialism Written for Mutiny Zine, March 2020
We do not choose the life into which we are born, but we are responsible for choosing our meanings within it.
In existential understandings, this experience is understood as 'thrownness' Geworfenheit (Heideggar, 1996) - we are 'thrown' into the world; into conditions beyond our control. These conditions can for example be our familial or social setting, our biological sex, or our race.
As human beings, we enter the world with an innate curiosity. Life is a sensory overload!
And we are not alone.
It is a given that we exist in a world of others, and as we begin our quest to become 'ourselves', we are exposed to the knowledge and meanings of those around us. At this point, we are no different from animals.
We become passionate about the meanings we gain, and as they become an important part of our identity, we strive to share them with others. We develop deeper connections with those who relate to what we believe, and those connections bring us an irreplaceable comfort. We start to feel less alone, as we become one with those around us through shared experiences. We need this. Imagine how lonely life would be if we had nothing in common with anyone!
And then we encounter those who do not relate to our meanings - here begins the us-them attitudes. As children this usually remains harmless, even joyful - a curiosity in the other's different eye colour, or skin tone. Enjoyably exploring the features of our siblings in the human family. All exciting! All new! All fascinating!
But the question is this: at what point does that curiosity turn to cruelty?
For not only are we helped by the experience of others, we are exceptionally hindered too. Before we develop the capacity to question, those around us are feeding us their own answers: "This is how I think and feel, so you must feel it too".
When this is in relation to not touching fire, or sticking our tongues in plug sockets, then this advice is literally lifesaving. We need it to survive. Yet many influences that we are exposed to as we grow up are beyond survival advice - they are the stories of generations, where differences are emphasised and demonising associations are interwoven. History is dragged into the present moment. But to what extent to we need this?
Unlike animals, humans have the capacity to question - a capacity that is too frequently neglected. In our desperate desire to be connected with those around us, we too often absorb their own meanings without considering our capacity to reject them and choose our own.
We may gain solidarity with few, but we lose infinite realms of possible connection with many others.
By absorbing the views of others, sometimes we may save ourselves from jumping in fires. Yet if we forget to question the views of others, we may be burning bridges with those around us before we have even bothered to ask their name.
When you make a judgement, who does this attitude originally belong to?