The Conflicted Self: Community and Hospitality

In the Judeao-Christian tradition there is a commandment to be hospitable to strangers since one has been a stranger before.  Deuteronomy 5 tells the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in the land of Egypt and therefore should accept those that come to them as guests in an unconditional way.  The second notion of hospitality comes from the prophets who urged a general openness to be shown to widow, orphan and alien.  In Jewish families, a place is kept free for Elijah who may or may not come.  Hospitality keeps an empty space, an openness is open to the radically other.  In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews 13:2 there is a commandment on hospitality.  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

            Conflict begins when we collide with things. Its resolution happens when unrealistic demands are dropped. Judy is yelling at Mitch for taking too long to pack things for a road trip. She has already put the baby in the car seat. Mitch knows he is being set up for a fall. Judy knows that Mitch could not possibly gather everything together in ten minutes. So he emerges from the house anxious and dazed. He reasons that Judy coming from an individualistic culture cannot understand his collectivistic impulses. Mitch is blamed for not listening to Judy’s needs. Having read the Bible, Mitch concludes that he must scrape his heart without feeling any pain, just like the Buddhist monk who immolated himself and offered a Kodak moment to the power of emptiness.

            Conflict happens when otherness cannot be accepted. The other proceeds in a way that bothers us.  Jill labels the things that John considers perfectly normal as “weird”. Jill does not think twice about putting her orange peels into her cereal bowl still full of milk.

            If can be believed, deep compatibility and not deep otherness is the answer to the resolution of conflict. To love your neighbor as yourself means to reduce the neighbor to yourself. The other is leveled off and expected to perform to your pre-conceived notions. The toothpaste must not be rolled from the bottom up as this violates the third law of thermodynamics. It must be divided in the middle.

            The Bachelor who cannot believe that he allowed a half-naked woman to straddle him on the beach is worried about what the rest of his harem might think. He talks to the camera and says, “ I feel lost right now.” He is lost in a strange blend of conservative promiscuity that plays with conflict to achieve better ratings.

            If there is a resolution to conflict, it must involve the lessening of our neurotic orientations.  Conflict occurs when our great expectations face the monotony of everyday living. Perhaps the Buddhists are correct when they maintain that we should not expect things. We should become like grains of sand so that all disappointment can be avoided.

             The French philosopher Jacques Derrida argues that hospitality has to do with responsibility towards the Other in their individuality and singularity.  Derrida argues that we have to reconcile the demand for equality with the demand for singularity.  This is an aporia.  The question is: how can we at the same time take into account the equality of everyone and respect the heterogeneous singularity of everyone? This is the main question of conflict resolution.

            We cannot content ourselves with applying existing norms or rules but must make an absolute risk in every singular instant as if it were being made for the first time.  These aporias or paradoxes are difficult to integrate into practice but responsibility, decision and hospitality cannot exist without them.  The ancient and modern traditions have proceeded from the position of assured knowledge that has often been euphoric, free of contradiction and with out aporia.  Such assured knowledge is calculated and calculating.  It is like a machine without responsibility and without ethics.  For Derrida there is no decision, no responsibility and no hospitality without the test of the aporia or undecidability.

            This “impossible” of which Derrida speaks is inseparable from the thinking of justice and from the unconditional hospitality that is required of us.  Hospitality focuses on what is most urgent today and the most proper for the articulation of a political ethics of conflict resolution.  The unconditional injunction for conflict resolution is:  “I have to welcome the Other” – whoever “the Other” is, and unconditionally.  For Derrida this means, without asking for a document, a name, a context or a passport.  I have to open myself to the Other.  I have to open my doors, my house, my home, my language, my culture, my nation, my state and myself.  This unconditional hospitality is frightening and transgressive, but it takes us beyond the Judeao-Christian understanding of hospitality where we are hospitable because we may be entering Elijah, Angels, serving Jesus, or dogmatically serving our parishioners like Unamuno’s priest.  It takes us beyond Kant with his notion of restricted hospitality that says we should welcome the stranger or the foreigner to the extent that they are citizens of another country.

            Kant’s concept of hospitality remains merely political in its reference to the state, the authority of the state, to citizenship and to the control of residency.  If we decide that everyone will be able to enter my space, my home, my city, my country, my language then there is a chance that the worst may happen.  Yes.  However, we must be open to the best and to the worst in other words to the human animal, or our hospitality will no longer be an unconditional injunction based on justice but a legal formulation.  The aporia of hospitality says that we have to welcome the Other, the orphan, the widow, the alien.  Without this, there would be no hospitality.  We must welcome without assimilation.  To offer hospitality is to be aware that the other may ruin my space.  Hospitality is therefore a risk, which has to be negotiated at every instant. This is what makes it difficult to implement.

            The decisions for hospitality or the best rules to follow have to be invented at every second with all the risks that this involves.  Hospitality is the name for our relation to the Other.  It is the very principle of ethics.  It is and always has been grave and urgent.  Seen in this manner, conflict can be resolved if the Other is in his own home in the home of the Other (chez lui chez l’autre).  Hospitality goes beyond invitation.  With invitation, we expect a guest to arrive without surprise.  Hospitality requires absolute surprise.  We are unprepared or prepared to be unprepared, for the unexpected arrival of any Other.  Hospitality is the receiving or welcoming which has no power, protocol or law.  It is an opening without the horizon of expectation where peace can be found beyond the confines of conflict. Here the message of love is never mixed with the eschatology of hate.


About Mark Zlomislic

Philosopher. Writer. Artist. My Studio/Gallery Inscape Fine Art is located in Cambridge, Ontario. Viewing by Appointment Only. Please email:
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