Summary of "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons"

Summary of

The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons

By Elaine Scarry

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Elaine Scarry, "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 40-62.

Scarry addresses the problem of violence and cruelty toward foreigners. She argues that the way we act toward others depends on how we see them. Specifically she argues that injuring another person is only possible when we do not fully see or recognize that person. To know another person is to be incapable of injuring them. Violence against another person is then both caused by and indicates a failure to fully imagine the other as a real person.

There are two basic approaches to dealing with violence against foreigners. The first emphasizes the need for people to imagine others more spontaneously, fully and generously. The second emphasizes constitutional or legal changes designed to eliminate the status of "foreign," that is, to extend citizenship to resident aliens. Both approaches are needed, but the constitutional approach is the more basic. To be effective constitutional changes must be accompanied by better spontaneous imagining. Improved imagination alone cannot prevent cruelty in a lasting, reliable way. But constitutional changes can encourage more generous imagining of strangers.

The purpose of the social contract, or society more generally, is to minimize injuries to its members. Citizens pledge themselves to mutual assistance and defense. Political theorists such as Locke considered injuries to include not just bodily harms, but also infringements of people's rights or freedom. Scarry suggests that "bearing the status of 'foreigner' was itself seen to be an injurious condition and hence one that it was the obligation of the commune to remove."(p. 43) This would explain the traditional obligation to provide hospitality to strangers, and the existence of mechanisms to naturalize foreigners.

Scarry notes that "The action of injury occurs precisely because we have trouble believing in the reality of other persons."(p. 43) Weakness of the imagination is another reason to emphasize the constitutional approach to dealing with violence against strangers or foreigners. Our ability to imagine others and perceive their injury is particularly weak when directed at the future. Americans see clearly the past injuries of Nazi death camps, and even the current injuries of the Vietnam (or now Serbian) war. "But," Scarry observes, "nothing is more remote that the possibility that we ourselves may in the future injure another population with our weapons, on a scale as great or far greater than in the period of enslavement, or World War II, or Vietnam."(p. 43)

People typically speak of human imagination as a powerful capacity. Scarry argues that it is actually relatively weak, at least in contrast to immediate perception. She observes hat our most urgent imagining of a dear friend is less clear, distinct and vivid than our impressions of that friend when she is actually present. If our imagination is that feeble with regard to someone we know well, consider how much more difficult and how much more inadequate our imagining of a stranger must be, much less a great number of strangers. Our capacity for injury has always been greater than our capacity to imagination of the other.

The Role of Literature

Literature, poetry and theatre might seem to disprove Scarry's point, and strengthen our individually weak imaginations. Here such imagined characters can be quite vivid and well developed. For the purposes of limiting violence against strangers however literary characters are quite limited. Only a very few character may be "brought to life" within any given work. Great literature is often covertly nationalistic, and so tends more often to be a vehicle for self-reflection and reflection on difference. The characters often have little connection to historical reality, and so the understanding they produce has no application in the real world.

Literature, poetry and the like can best improve our imagination of others by illustrating how it is that we so often fail to imagine the other, and how individuals are diminished in one another's view. Scarry points out two ways in which we diminish the reality of the other person. One way is through underexposure. Others remain nameless, unidentified, not shown or not mentioned. Another way is through overexposure. Overexposure saturates us with a caricatured or stereotyped images of the others. That simplistic image then comes to represent all persons of that "type." Stereotypes are often more vivid than our other spontaneous imaginings, and so block attempts to cultivate more generous , full imagination of strangers.

Scarry does note two works which were directly involved in addressing problems of violence against others: Uncle Tom's Cabin, and A Passage to India. These works are notable in large part because they prompted structural change to diminish the status of Otherness that Blacks or Indians respectively suffered.

Achieving Self - Other Parity

It may not be possible to improve our imagination of others sufficiently to prevent violence against them. How ever there is another approach available. Rather than make others seem as real as we feel to ourselves, we may instead attempt to abstract away from our own self-image until our view of our self is as abstracted as our view of others. If violence is made possible when another seems less real than myself then the answer is to make us both seem equally real (or in this case, equally vague and abstract). Bertrand Russell, for example, suggested that "when reading the paper each day, we ought routinely to substitute the names of alternative countries to the reported action in order to test whether our response to the event arises from a moral assessment of the action or instead from a set of prejudices about the country."(p. 51)

Two Approaches

As noted above, one way to deal with strangers or foreigners is to extend hospitality by way of fuller and more generous imaginings. Citizens extend their imaginations, take into accounts the needs and welfare of others, act generously and protectively toward the foreigners in their midst. Another way is to remove others from their status as foreign by laws which extend citizenship to them. Now the new citizens need not rely so utterly on the notoriously weak imaginations of their fellow citizens for protection from injury. They can instead represent themselves in society and politics. Self-representation is, Scarry observes, the most reliable form of protection.

The very logic of the term "foreigner" tends to obscure the latter approach. When appliedto a resident, "foreigner" cannot refer to the individual's geographical location. Instead the term simply denotes one who is excluded from self-representation and the political process, i.e. who is not a citizen. A foreigner is by definition one who is excluded from participating in a nation's politics, one who is not a citizen. Yet being "foreign" is often offered as a reason for excluding a person from citizenship. However as an argument this is clearly circular. "The lack of voting rights is explained on the basis that the people are foreigners, but what makes them appear foreign is only the fact that they lack voting rights."(p. 53) Broader exposure to the naturalization laws of different countries might make people more willing and able to imagine changes in their own laws.

The best solution to the problem of cruelty to strangers combines spontaneous imagining with legal equality and enfranchisement. Political equality encourages social heterogeneity, since under such conditions difference need not mean inequality. Indeed inegalitarian societies encourage conformity as people all strive to assume the privileged status. Political equality encourages toleration, and "to tolerate others is to make room for them in one's imagining."(p. 55) Increases in intermarriage illustrate the improvement of imagination that come with constitutional change. Spontaneous imaginings are also important for maintaining social unity and solidarity.

Imagination is also needed to deal with people outside the nation's borders. The constitutional approach of making them citizens is not available for them. However constitutional factors may still play a role in this case, by encouraging and safeguarding the practices of imagination on which do protect such foreigners. For example, a constitution which allows the nation's leader to declare war is less protective of foreigners than one which requires widespread political discussion and debate.

Constitutional structures cannot ensure that strangers will receive a full measure of attention and adequate imagining. Yet such laws do publicly set the goal of good treatment, and can be used to hold citizens to their promises of protection. Scarry concludes that "The work accomplished by a structure of laws cannot be accomplished by a structure of sentiment. Constitutions are needed to uphold transnational values."(58)