Thursday, June 16, 2016

The conservative conception of 'first contact' as a permanently insurmountable encounter

'Anthropology as a permanent state of first contact' is the title of a short piece I presented a few years back at the American Anthropological Association (it is available on the site of the journal Cultural Anthropology). In that piece I wanted to highlight the importance of an anthropology that foregrounds the ethnographer's capacity to always aim to find and confront new differences that widen our horizons of the possible. So much research is explicitly or implicitly invested in the analysis of the production and reproduction of sameness. Indeed in a way sameness and continuity is what defines social research as social, and it goes without saying that such research is highly important: it is the research that allows us to find and analyse social structures, social habits, laws, etc. Notwithstanding this importance, critical anthropology, as I see it, can instill in researchers a desire and a disposition to always go out of this emphasis on sameness in order to stage an encounter with what lays outside of it. It is a Star Trek like desire for an encounter with a difference no one has encountered before, and once this encounter has happened to continue yearning for yet another one, and then again another, endlessly. Implicitly, I was acknowledging what I took for granted: every first contact that might start as a trying encounter with difference sooner or later becomes a non-event as we open ourselves to this difference and incorporate it into our everyday life. But in speaking of this as a permanent state of first contact, I did not take into account what is a conservative version of this encounter. This is when we don't open up for the difference we encounter and stay permanently in a relation of antagonism towards it. This permanent state of first contact becomes the very oppose it of the Star Trek ethos: a refusal to explore difference and to go anywhere one has not been before. This is what defines cultural openness and cultural rigidity among non-researchers as well.

For instance, I have heard stories of or came across, both in my everyday life in Australia and as an ethnographer working among the Lebanese diaspora world wide, a number of families encountering the coming out of a gay son or daughter. In the great majority of cases, quite conservative, religious, non-cosmopolitan families began by being shocked to learn that their son or daughter is gay. Yet after a certain period of 'first encounter', members manage to routinise that difference such as it became a non-issue. Some remain hostile to the idea of a gay person but manage to live with the fact of gayness quite well without making a fuss about it at all. For some others, albeit a minority, it transformed them into activists against homophobia. However, there was also a conservative minority which simply could not adapt to the difference and reacted with extreme marginalisation or attempts at 'reconversion'. For such families difference was not something that could be overcome and the shock of the first encounter was maintained over time. They encounter difference like an insurmountable mountain. It is this kind of encounter that conservative thought mobilises. Yet, it is important to argue and show that it is far from the norm.

My mother was quite shocked to learn that I wanted to just live and have children with my partner without any religious or civil marriage (just celebrated thirty years of it by the way). She was adamant that she could not possibly relate to grand-children born 'illegitimately'. She made a big fuss, etc. but when faced with the fact of it slowly accommodated herself with the reality. She overcome the shock of her first contact with the idea of a family based on a de facto relation and slowly and surely it became a non issue for her. I am sure she will not be an advocate of de facto relations but it is a fact that she does not look at my partner and I or the children and think: 'Oh my god here comes the ungodly couple and their kids'. Nor does she continue to see it as something strange. Many of her grandchildren are living in such relationships now and she has not acted at all as if she was encountering something objectionable. After the shock of first contact there is routinisation. That is really the norm.

Yet, it is this routinisation that is almost always foreclosed by conservative thought. It mobilises the moment of 'first contact' but, and this is an important but, instead of noting that whatever is shocking to begin with becomes routinised with time, like the family who could not overcome their gay son they make out as if any encounter with difference is an insurmountable situation. The conservative version of 'permanent state of first contact' is not a permanent state of openness to the world and a willful or forced discovery of new forms of life, but a permanent state of protectively blocking, and protecting oneself from, the very first shocking encounter.

Take for instance a famous pronouncement by Australia's ex-prime minister John Howard which was later repeated in a different context by another more recent conservative prime minister, Tony Abbott.  Howard declared that he found the veil 'confronting'. Tony Abbott declared that he found the burqa 'confronting'. They were both speaking to their conservative constituency and telling them: it is ok to be shocked and find the experience a trying one. They thought that in doing so they were opposing those politically correct people who would try to make people feel guilty for experiencing the veil or the burqa confronting.
Here we face a classic case of a conservative fetishising of the shock of first contact and portraying its permanence as the norm. For the question that needed to be asked to Howard or Abbott was not 'why do you find the veil or the burqa confronting?' Rather, the question should be 'ok, so you find the first or second or third time you confront the veil hard to deal with, fine, but for how long is this supposed to go on for? Isn't there a point where one becomes familiar with what is shocking them? 

In fact there is one clear reason behind Islamophobic thought's ability to make it out as if every encounter with a veiled woman is a shocking encounter. It is its own inability to think of the encounter as a space of reciprocal interaction and co-existence and co-discovery. Rather is sees this space a priori as a space of conflict where one needs to protect oneself, indeed it even sees it as a space of war. It is thus 'a bit rich' or perhaps just simply banal to highlight the 'confronting' nature of the encounter, since it is the conservative who has introduce the ethos of conflict into the situation in the first place. It is a case of what Bourdieu calls introducing into the object one's relation to the object.

Most recently, we had another case of the fetishisation of the 'confronting nature of the first contact' when the father of the Orlando murderer, made it out that his son found the encounter with a gay kissing couple confronting. The father gave this as an explanation for his son's behaviour. As it turned out the murderer must have been quite used to the sight of kissing gay couples since he was a regular at the gay club where he committed the massacre. Regardless of whether the father was saying the truth or not, we have again an example of how conservative thought legitimises itself by reducing the potentially enriching permanent state of first contact into a permanently insurmountable encounter. The possibility that the first encounter with a gay kissing couple leading to or opening the way for an acceptance of gay kissing couple is foreclosed.

I am thinking all this as I am facing ethnographically in Lebanon conservative Lebanese Christians' imaginaries of the Muslim threat. Here is a politico-communal formation whose members refer to themselves as 'the Christians' (empirically, they are not all Christians nor even all the Maronites). This politico-communal formation has formally and informally lived with Muslims for more than two hundred years. And yet, for all kind of class, colonial, racist and many other entangled reasons, they have never been allowed, nor have they allowed themselves to encounter the Muslims in a mode of mutual openness. It is two hundred years of encountering a specific form of otherness and two hundred years of seeing it as something strange, obscure, unknowable and threatening. This is not true of all Lebanese Christians. And there is not doubt that one can find similar tendencies among Muslims. But of all these possibilities, it is tragic to think that the whole world seems to be following in the footsteps of those conservative Christians, as if their experience of the permanent state of first contact as a state of permanent insurmountability is the only experience available to us.

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