Wednesday, 29 July 2009

welcoming or warning, hospitable or hostile: a disquieting challenge

cottage in Ennerdale copy

Seeing this dwelling at the end of a three hour walk around Ennerdale triggered a line of thinking which led me to get out my camera and take this shot. The cottage with its enclosed mown lane was a striking sign of domesticity in the midst of a managed yet still wild landscape. My attention was led naturally to that door in the whitewashed wall. And that is when the questions started to flow.

What reception would I get as a stranger if I knocked on the door? If I were in the cottage, how would I react to such an unexpected intrusion from outside? Whichever side of the door I was standing on, what would be shaping my expectations? And should the door open, what would govern my response to the person I would see? And most disquieting of all, do the answers to these questions vary depending upon which side of the door you  imagine yourself to be? In other words is there an ethical double-standard in play here?

Our perceptions of threat and neediness are likely to be made before ever the other person has a chance to speak. Such initial judgements resemble the matrix metering in my Nikon; the camera’s onboard computer seeks to recognise scenes and their particularities of lighting by referring to an inbuilt database of exposure information which correlates to what the sensor is currently detecting. This system is very reliable and highly sophisticated. It produces great results. It is not foolproof and it does not see what I see through the viewfinder, because it does not see how I see. To get close to that I need to use other software in post-processing. In other words the initial perception can be way out, a little out, or spot on. We won’t know until we put it to the test.

Hollywood has traded on this perceptual doorstep dilemma in countless thrillers down the years. What if our judgement is mistaken? What are the consequences of getting it wrong? Screenplays dwell on these issues and play with our inbuilt ways of seeing the world and each other. Perhaps the best are those which throw our prejudices back in our faces and humanise rather than demonise the ‘other’. Such are not flavour of the month with neocons or fundamentalist extremists who prefer to deal in terror and threat laden stereotypes. It is so much easier to blast the ‘other’ out of existence and repress the freedoms of your own people if you do. Being open to an open encounter with the stranger is so much more threatening because it threatens the very mechanisms of power, profit and control which seek to shape our perceptions into stereotypes in the first place.

On our way back from holiday in the Lake District one of the tyres on our caravan blew out. We ended up standing by the side of the M6 in pouring rain waiting for a commendably short while for the AA rescue patrol to arrive. The guy was great and had us back on the road very quickly. When he first drew up and got out of his van I ‘saw’ that he was a young Muslim. He was in his twenties and had a long beard and short hair and was ‘clearly’ of British Asian ethnicity. Elements of the right wing press and politicians across the political spectrum, but chiefly of the right and far right would have me see him as a potential threat. They would seek to put into my head ways of seeing which play to their agenda, rather than see a really friendly, careful and efficient young man who is good at his job. This is what was going through my mind as he changed the wheel on our caravan. The real threat to our society are those who would prevent us from ever getting across the doorstep of authentic encounter out of which trust and mutuality are forged. And yet these same people who engender fear and mistrust with labels of ‘Muslim’, ‘Asylum Seeker’ and ‘Benefit Cheat’ would no doubt be appalled if they knocked on the cottage door and were met by anything less than welcoming hospitality, especially if the cottage were in Tuscany or the Cayman Islands. Double standards abound and yet they seem only too willing to slam the door shut in the faces of people who are not like them. The current  ‘this is what you are not’ exclusivist favourite of our political class, that of  ‘Hard Working Families’, is an insidious and cynical case in point.

Opening doors and seeing with an open mind is a risky business. It requires courage. So too does knocking the door in the first place, especially if you are ‘different’. Jesus did both of these. He was the outsider who drew people inside. He was the stranger who taught others to stand on both sides of the door and to know that he was to be found in the face of the ‘other’. And his way of seeing seems so ‘other’ in these deliberately fear-filled and suspicious times. It is why we need it so much, lest we lose sight altogether of a global vision of justice and peace for all.

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