As a teacher – and an INTJ on Myers-Briggs – I can quite understand Sartre when he writes in a play that ‘Hell is other people.’ (I wouldn’t go as far as Zizek and say that ‘I hate my students – they are boring and stupid’, partly because they’re always trawling around the web looking for stuff I’ve written, and they’d string me up if I did!)
One of the reasons that Sartre’s maxim still resonates is that in the process of globalisation we are exposed to more and more ‘others.’ Whereas in the past the number of people we might meet in a whole lifetime might number a couple of hundred, we can now ‘encounter’ that many strangers in a day through a single strain of retweets.
With the exponentially increasing number of others, Sartre’s problem with other people becomes even more acute:
– Our exposure to many many more ‘others’ is enriching as they help us to understand and verify our selves through their myriad different manifestations, but…
– Our exposure to many many more ‘others’ leaves us flailing as we find ourselves more and more limited by the huge gulfs of understanding between ourselves and these others.
The reflex reaction to this exposure to more and more others can be, as I’ve explored here before, utopian: we try to create perfect places, wherefrom all difference and dirt has been excluded. We try to create heaven by expelling all of those who make our lives hell.
This naturally leads to violence, and we can see this in the paralleled rise in right-wing nationalism as countries become more ‘globalised.’ Sartre’s maxim could thus be used as the driving force for all right-wing groups.
As I have written here before, the popularity of right-wing nationalism has to rely on there being a ‘dangerous grain of truth’ in what they say. If it was total nonsense, they would gain no support. In terms of our analysis of Sartre, we could say that what these groups do is to grossly distend the limiting aspects of our relationship to the other: by interacting with ‘them’ we are diminishing ourselves somehow.
By collapsing the paradox that Sartre sets up, they ignore the hugely beneficial aspects of engagement with strangers: helping us to better understand who we are.
It’s in getting this balance right that I believe we find a way out of this problem of hell being other people – and in doing so I believe we can begin to see that heaven, whatever that might be, is actually other people too. I’ll try to get to that in the next post.
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