“Admiration is the feeling that sustains democracy.”
written by: Esther Beunis
This quote taken from the book The Work of Art in the World by Doris Sommer has sparked each one of us to think about the word Admiration in different ways. To understand what Sommer meant to say using this quote in reference to Antanas Mockus we have to look carefully at the context of this sentence in her work. Sommer uses the word Admiration to replace the word Tolerance in order to “shift the balance of feeling; it favors others without sacrificing self-love.” (p. 31)
The word tolerance is widely used in the Netherlands to describe the country positively as a safe haven, a warm bath for migrants, refugees and all ‘others’. The people who believe that today the Netherlands is becoming less and less tolerant often try to convince the population that we should go back to being tolerant again as this would benefit the Other. A 2012 campaign by SIRE, a Dutch organization that uses media to ‘wake people up and contribute to a responsible sustainable society’, launched a campaign with the slogan: ‘Tolerantie, daar knapt heel Nederland van op‘. This freely translates into: tolerance will recover the Netherlands. Below is a snapshot from the video that was launched within this campaign. Click here to watch it in full. Strikingly enough, tolerance is being presented as a product that one can buy. Corporate language has entrenched itself into this commercial which presents itself as a cry out for an inclusive society however I believe that what it preaches is essentially the complete opposite.
What is being overlooked is the essential meaning of the word tolerance. To tolerate somebody is merely to identify the other while still speaking from a position of power. Just as Sommer says, to tolerate is “to continue to count on one’s own opinions and imply wait until others stop talking.” (p. 31) Consequently, tolerance leaves no room for equal dialogue, which is inherent to sustainable democracy. Toleration suggests a separation between the tolerater and the tolerated in which one has power over the other. Dichotic thinking is intrinsic to the modern hegemonic ontology. Examples are the gender system in place (male vs. female) and the us vs. them discrimination that is enforced by using terms like toleration. Gustavo Esteva, in ‘The Indigenous People of Chiapas and the State in the Time of Zapatismo: Remaking Culture, Renegotiating Power’ wrote an article ‘The Meaning and Scope of the Struggle for Autonomy’ in which he analyzes the word tolerance in a similar way:
“In the final analysis, tolerance is nothing but a more civilized form of intolerance. To tolerate others is to accept their presence without recognizing them. One permits them to exist as an expression of one’s own flexibility and generosity, but in the act one disqualifies them; they are not as they should be-not like oneself. Hospitality, in contrast, implies openness to others-not admiring, following, or imitating them but recognizing their existence, their right to be and to occupy their own space.” (p. 24)
The difference between Sommer and Esteva is that they disagree on the word admiration as a substitute for the word tolerance. However they both agree on the misuse of the word tolerance as a positive thing. It is clear that either admiration or hospitality in both cases would serve as the better option when trying to sustain democracy. The trouble that arises when using a word like hospitality is that to some extent it still feels as if one is inviting the other to come and stay with a certain imbalance of power between the host and the hosted.
Doris Sommer. The Work of Arts in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, 2014.
Gustavo Esteva. Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 28, No. 2, The Indigenous People of Chiapas and the
State in the Time of Zapatismo: Remaking Culture, Renegotiating Power (Mar., 2001), pp. 120
Photo 1: Traffic memes in Bogotà, Colombia. Installed by mayor Antanas Mockus to reduce traffic violations by mocking those who do. On july 2015 the mayor himself wrote an article called ‘The Art of Changing a City’ in the New York Times that you can find here.