A French philosopher dissects the mix of reactions across society, and within our own individual psyches, when human misery arrives at our door.
PARIS — It's not merely the topic du jour in time for our return from summer holidays — nor even the big issue for 2015. It is a question that will likely preoccupy Europe for a long, long time. Migrants are not small groups anymore, but increasingly waves of humanity. And the paralysis, the emotion, the shame, but also the anxiety, rejection and violence seem to all grow together. Every day gives a glimpse of new faces, new tragedies, new problems that cannot quickly be solved.
To Calais, France, and the Italian island of Lampedusa, we can now add Greek islands, Balkan roads, the Hungarian border. The race to escape the police and outlast hunger gives way to death by drowning, suffocation, electrocution. Polite conversations have been replaced by demonstrations and invectives, as the chasm between supporters and opponents deepens every day.
Germany and Italy are divided, so is France and the rest of Europe. Each according to their own history and flaws. And all the evidence suggests that these gaps will only get wider as the number of refugees grows higher.
And yet the difficulty that seems most crucial to me is never clearly expressed. It has nothing to do with the distinction between political refugees, fleeing the chaos of war, and economic migrants, attempting to escape the chaos of poverty. This separation, most often, is artificial and impossible to establish clearly. Nor is it a matter of confrontation between "them" and "us" — their lives without homes, work, security, and ours of privileged, residents and citizens of relatively safe and abundant lands.
No, the real conflict that is settling in is, in reality, between two different ideas of "we," to which each one of us belongs. Let me explain.
"We, humans," want to reach out. That part of us filled with empathy, pity, brotherhood is not based on shallow, sorry commiseration. It forms the very foundation of morals, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Schopenhauer and Adam Smith demonstrated in their own time, in different ways. Moral feelings are directly linked to our most basic instincts, our guts and sensitivities and emotions, before being the object of any debates. The migrants' distress is not external to that "us." Human to human, suffering is felt and shared instantly. In the same way that we jump into the water when we see someone drowning, it is evidently urgent that we act to take in our fellow humans in distress.
"We, the privileged," instead, want to close doors, declare that it's not our problem, not our life or responsibility. That selfish and withdrawing "we" is also the one that wants to defend what has been acquired: social stability, public order, one's home that belongs to no other. Comparing and favoring oneself, protecting oneself by refusing to help — these human attitudes have existed for just as long as pity and its emotions.
The difficulty lies in the fact that we all, always, belong simultaneously to both of these manifestations of "us." There are, of course, distinct parties, movements and ideologies. Opposed points of view, antagonistic programs. But we would be wrong in imagining that there are just two sides, where sensitivity and discernment are opposed. If tensions are rising concerning the way to act with migrants, if the status quo is weighing down both politics and debates, it's not because there are "good" people on one side and "bad" people on the other. It's mostly because we are all, deep down, more or less divided.
We all know, from personal experience, these moments of emotion that make us think that we must open our doors or our wallets, and those opposite moments where we deem it necessary to take care of the comfort and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.
Apart from angels and demons — which we symmetrically imagine incapable of evil or good — these two tendencies are strong within every individual. What is important to know is that their tension first takes root within us, and not in the outside world. And that it is not about to disappear. We need to recognize this if one day we hope to find real solutions for others, and begin to reconcile this conflict within ourselves.