Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Shirkers and strivers and Mr Buber


Noticing the death last September of the notable Buber scholar and translator, Maurice Friedman, was a confirmation of my desire to re-engage with Buber.

The conversation began with reading of I and Thou and a brief book by Aubrey Hodes in the library at Heythrop, when I was a student.

I was captivated with his differentiation between responding to a thing or person as an end in themselves, hallowing them, or making use of a person or thing, as an instrument. Both are necessary but the latter must be enfolded in the former. Hallowing takes precedence and shapes
instrumentality. Hallowing of the person is the basis of a dialogue that allows each participant to stand present as fully themselves, in a mutual exchange, in which is grounded the potential of understanding and peace.

Buber was a remarkable writer capable of complete imaginative clarity (as in the Tales of the Hasidim) and the most minute painstakingly obscure writings (when trying to conform to a presumed German academic standard - Kant and Hegel have a great deal to answer for).

His range was remarkable - fiction, folklore, sociology, psychology, political economy, Biblical translation and commentary and religious studies (to name a few). But all permeated, as Dan Avnon so eloquently points out (in 'Martin Buber: The Hidden Dialogue'), with a fundamental question: what does it mean for us and our society if we believe that every human person is 'made in the image and likeness of God' - radically unfathomed, each unique, each, however, only wholly real when set in a relationship, a relationship that is a dialogue, where the reality of what exists 'between' each is as real as the two persons themselves. "All real living is meeting" wrote Buber.

The first thing that occurs to me, topically in the United Kingdom, was yesterday's debate on a new Welfare Bill restricting increases on benefits and tax credits to 1% per annum for the next three years. Leaving aside the merits or demerits of such an action was the Chancellor's (Finance Minister's) attempt to separate 'strivers' (people in work) from 'shirkers' (the unemployed or that subset who are imagined, on no real evidence, not to want to work). The assumption of such language is that people are defined instrumentally and can be positioned over and against each other - and the shift from describing help as 'social security' (which is a communal good that everyone can potentially access) to 'welfare' (which is a good that is dispensed from 'us' to 'them') is another exemplar of an instrumental polarisation.

It is one that cannot, in Buber's view, stand - no one can be defined and consigned by a category in a way that excludes them from their more fundamental reality of sharing in God's image; and, the obligation of any genuine community must be to struggle to include within itself everyone (which is why Buber was a socialist) - and Buber does not doubt that struggle may be involved to realise any and every act of inclusion.

The reality that Mr Osbourne precludes is of a shared human commonwealth anchored in a shared identity that cannot be eradicated by any human categorisation. Dwelling in that identity makes community possible, indeed inevitable. It is a dwelling of which I doubt Mr Osbourne has any comprehension either as an economic or a social goal (and the two must be intertwined in any genuine community).

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