In Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest, Mireille Rosello explores the relationship between hospitality ethics and hospitality laws. Concerned with France in the aftermath of the 1993 Pasqual immigration laws, Rosello concludes that the French government had virtually turned the “clandestine (illegal immigrant) into an enemy of the state, the most easily identifiable national scapegoat (1).” Citing this instance, Rosello more broadly reflects upon the long history of hospitality as “ancient classical tradition, a philosophical value, an ethical imperative, a political issue, and also a polymorphous individual practice… (6).” Laws govern hospitality. So do individuals.
I’m wondering if there might not be any philosophical difference between those governors. Or if there is, should there be?
Bifurcating hospitality into public and private realms, Rosello writes that “hospitality as metaphor blurs the distinction between a discourse of rights and a discourse of generosity. . .” (9). However, if countries act as hosts, treating immigrants, for example, as guests and—therefore, as equals—would we need to distinguish between public and private acts of hospitality, between rights and generosity?
In my discussions about hospitality—with my colleagues, students, and family—it doesn’t seem that the subject is taken seriously. Typically, these very brief discussions soon become monologues; my frustration mounts; and I proclaim that no less noble research could be done than that in the pursuit of hospitality values and practices. Making little headway, I blunder forward, insisting that really bad diseases aside, the human race would suffer no turmoil, tragedy, or terror if we all acted hospitably to each other—on a national and personal level. Usually at this point, one of two reactions occurs: a snicker or a retort about natural disasters causing problems.* Fine, I’ll add that to my assertion: Except for really bad diseases and natural disasters, the human race would live blissfully if it lived hospitably. Now, I’m left with only the snickerers.
They’re a tough bunch. They’re the 1) Machiavellis, 2) Hobbeses, 3) Miltons, 4) Millses or 5) Augustines. They assert that left without powerful restraining mechanisms, mankind would annihilate itself because human nature is 1) aggressive, 2) ruled by fear of death, 3) overreaching, 4) mediocre, or 5) weak.
Let me grant all of their pessimistic views of mankind. Unlike Plato, I’m willing to assume that human nature is innately and critically flawed. Then what? Where do we go from that position? 1) We can build up our fortresses. 2) We can relinquish our power and freedom to a single protector. 3) We can accept mortality as our punishment for hubris. 4) We can build up our government systems. 5) We can embrace suffering as our salvation.
Or we could strive to act decently to each other. We need to be inspired to overcome our flawed human nature. Enter Jacques Derrida.
You can’t research hospitality for long without reading acknowledgments to Derrida. Rosello interprets his stand on hospitality for us: “Pure, unconditional or infinite hospitality cannot and must not be anything else but an acceptance of risk. If I am sure that the newcomer that I welcome is perfectly harmless, innocent, that (s)he will be beneficial to me…it is not hospitality. When I open my door, I must be ready to take the greatest of risks” (11-12). I've read some Derrida and, in fact, I once heard him speak. From what I read, heard, and saw, he seemed genuinely sincere, playful, and lovely. I know that his own character shouldn't determine how seriously I adopt his ethics. But I often recall with fondness how delightful he seemed. And, maybe it's shallow, but that inspires me.
For me, Derrida poses the challenge of hospitality. As a host, am I not allowed any expectations of my guests? Realistically, aren't my guests obligated to treat me with respect in return for my generosity? Or, as Derrida believes, is being hospitable a demonstration of unconditional acceptance? At this point in my research, this is my dilemma: I want to be a Derrida, but I don't want to be a doormat.
But I don’t want to be a doormat.
Well…I’ll keep researching, thinking, writing, and trying to practice hospitality with more magnanimity and less intolerance.
*Recently, a colleague in the biology department corrected me that hospitable behavior would eliminate many “really bad diseases.”
Rosello, Mireille. Postcolonial Hospitality: The Immigrant as Guest. Stanford, California: 2001.
Derrida 1999b, 137 “Debate: One Hospitality Without Condition.”