Internal Strangers and Democracy

By Julia Sushytska

Sushytska argues that democracy needs the ‘internal stranger’, someone not of the culture who has chosen to live in it.  (She is herself an internal stranger, having been born in Ukraine but having come to live in the U.S.)  In short, her argument is that without immigrants and without interacting with them, a democracy makes itself homogeneous and turns into a closed tyrannical state.

On January 27, 2017 the President of the United States signed an executive order to ban the citizens of seven countries from entering the US. This order is rightly known as the Muslim ban, not only because the countries on the list are predominantly Muslim, but also because it emerged from the context of overtly anti-Muslim, racist, and xenophobic statements and promises made by the same President before and after he took office. Another—essentially the same, but “watered down”—version of the ban was signed on March 6.

There are many reasons for why such executive orders are counterproductive, if one assumes that they aim to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack. For one, they provide the world and the Islamic State with evidence that the US discriminates against Muslims. This evidence is bound to offend, anger, and radicalize many people, some of whom were previously sympathetic to the United Sates. An even more significant effect of these bans is that they reinforce racist and xenophobic feelings and actions among the population. People who until recently “tolerated” many who were unlike them show that they feel authorized to abandon the façade of tolerance. The bans also appear to have empowered some government officials to re-interpret the nature and the purpose of their job even though both of the executive orders have been blocked by federal appeals courts. Many border patrol agents seem to have changed the assumption that guides them in their job: rather than verifying the entry documents and the identity of those who seek to enter the country, they search for reasons to forbid such entry. The examples that I will now cite, each from a different category, signal the shift in the approach or in the understanding of their duties by the border patrol agents.

A school teacher and citizen of Great Britain who has never lived in or visited the seven countries that made it into the Muslim ban, was denied entry into the US when traveling with his school group on a valid visa.[1] A holder of a valid US visa was denied entry into the US because his brother, now a US citizen, at some point in the past was in the US illegally.[2] A US citizen was detained and questioned for hours when entering his country, because his first name is Muhammad. “Are you a Muslim?” he was asked by a border control agent. He happened to be the son of Muhammad Ali, a famous boxer, and once the officer realized it, this US citizen was immediately admitted into his own country.[3]

The tension around the US entry ports is, of course, only a part of the problem. There is also the infamous project of expanding the border wall between the US and Mexico, the deportations of illegal immigrants, the increase in anti-Semitism (Jewish cemeteries vandalized), racism, and xenophobia (fliers with racist messages have been distributed on university campuses). Some of these might seem like insignificant incidents, but they quickly add up to form a bleak and even dismal picture of “America.” Here is a short quote from a recent Washington Post article on the appearance of a Ku Klux Klan sign in downtown of a small peaceful town of Dahlonega, Georgia: “In Upstate New York, the home of a Jewish man was spray-painted with swastikas. In Virginia, fliers were distributed in several neighborhoods with the words, ‘Make America WHITE again-and greatness will follow’. In Colorado, two typewritten notes that read ‘WERE GONNA BLOW UP ALL OF YOU REFUGEES’, were left at a community center serving mainly Muslim immigrants.”[4]

Such more or less significant incidents create a general culture of fear and hate, which is nourished by the words, actions, and policies of those holding highest government offices. Today a part of this general culture is a false and dangerous idea that separating from a perceived enemy by banning him or her entry, erecting walls, blowing him or her up, will resolve one’s own fear, hatred, dissatisfaction with life, the existing social, racial, and political inequalities, etc. This idea has lead to genocides, and nothing guarantees that it will not have the same effect today.

Cultivation of fear is a proven way of transforming a democracy into an authoritarian regime. The two most obvious examples of this are Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia. Both Hitler and Putin took away the civil liberties and dismantled civil society by feeding on fear and ignorance. In both cases the lever with which they turned a democratic society into tyranny was positioned against the same Archimedean point—xenophobia.[5] This is why I wrote above that the Muslim ban is “counterproductive, if one assumes that it aims to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack.” This might not be its goal at all. If the government’s goal is to bring about the situation in which even a relatively minor terrorist attack will allow it to close down open, horizontal places of democracy, then the ban is not as illogical as it might seem

Even if the official policy has not (yet) changed, the current government  already changed the culture by giving people license to unleash and strengthen their prejudices and fears—something that cannot be easily stopped by a court order. Even if the laws have not been changed, the way of life has changed. In the US today the fear of the stranger is given free rein. This is not to say that this or other societies are much better off when this fear is suppressed. It is usually not a good idea to cover over or deny feelings and emotions. One must instead confront and work through them as opposed to merely going through the motions of  “politically correct” responses, while harboring negative emotions. However, at this historical moment the pre-existing fear, erroneous opinions and beliefs are not just being brought out into the open. They are being cultivated and nurtured. The top government officials of several nations, including the USA, are encouraging acting out, instead of promoting the demanding work of transforming fear into understanding and openness.

One of the most effective ways to sustain and revive democratic processes is to engage in conversations. By conversations I mean something specific: a situation when two or more individuals place themselves on the edge, and risk opening themselves to each other’s and, ultimately, to their own differences and strangeness.

Strangers—and especially internal strangers, or those who place themselves in-between two or more languages, cultures, or traditions—are essential for a vibrant civil society. Strangers enable conversations—the kind that I call creative. Such conversations constitute the core of democracy, and ensure a vibrant civil society, or what the Greeks called the agora. Without strangers such conversations, and by extension democracy, are impossible. The strangers are by definition those human beings who bring difference to the foreground, who make it difficult, if not impossible to deny or forget this difference. And conversations, as I will argue, only happen when one begins from difference.

Democracy is not without flaws or a shadow. It is, perhaps, not the best form of government, as Plato pointed out: democracy is the rule of the majority, but the majority might very well choose something harmful without realizing it is such. A democratic system might be the best of the worst, as Aristotle maintained, and Plato might be correct to say that in theory the rule of the philosopher is better, but such a rule is attractive in theory only, for philosophical activity seems incompatible with political power. While we are searching for a better form of government, democracy remains the best of the known forms, but only, and this is crucial, if it has a vibrant civil society.

What is civil society?

Western democracy is often traced to ancient Athens. This is why I will use an image from this city-state to explain what I mean by civil society. I want to emphasize that it is only an image. I am not claiming that Athens was a model democratic society. Nor do I think that the present day democracies are the direct descendants, or consummations of a process begun in ancient Athens. Still, an image from the Athenian city-state can be extremely useful, if it allows one to better understand one’s own context. Such is the image of the agora, i.e. an open, horizontal place that is structured by public institutions: the council, several meeting areas, law courts, and temples. The agora was horizontal, as opposed to the vertical or hierarchical royal Mycenaean palace, centered on the great hall. The agora was open, and embodied the principle of isonomia: the law was applied equally to all of the different members of the city-state. These laws were not proclaimed by the quasi-divine king, but written down “in the middle,” as a Greek expression had it. The topography of the city-state reflected and reinforced the idea of openness and disclosure, and emphasized the significance of the public domain—of common interests and open practices.[6] Transparency is another term that might successfully describe the agora. 

Along with isonomia, or equality before the law, agora embodied the principle of isophōnia, or the equality of voice. On the agora, given the opportunity to resound freely, human voices developed into conversations. Equality of voices, just like equality before the law, enabled different human beings to converse with each other and to change in the process of these conversations. Once again, this is an image extracted from a historical context, and that in many ways did not live up to its own image—for instance, Athenian democratic processes excluded women, slaves, the poor, and foreigners.

When one applies the image of the agora to present day nation states, it becomes clear that the specific physical places—city squares (for example, Maidan in Kyiv), public parks (for instance, Zuccotti Park), lecture and conference halls, government buildings, etc.—are crucial components of the agora, just as are the media: newspapers, journals, magazines, and, perhaps, social media.[7] And yet the agora is always more than all of these structures and places. The agora is also the human beings who converse with each other in these open, horizontal places. These conversations, although indissociable from “debate, discussion, or argument,” to use Vernant’s understanding of logos, are not reducible to rational and even linguistic communication, because they heavily rely on myth or, more generally, art. Conversations on the agora draw simultaneously from mythos and logos, i.e. they are no less artistic than rational. These conversations must be public. Underground or kitchen discussions, no matter how widespread, deep, or politically charged, are not open, and so reveal nothing about the existence of civil society. The open, horizontal, transparent places and the activity of the human beings in those places constitute civil society.

A Soviet-era philosopher Merab Mamardashvili explains the notion of civil society by covering rugged Athenian soil with a deep layer of snow: the agora, according to Mamardashvili, is the “emphatic back and forth, this snowballing of ideas in the public square.”[8] Mamardashvili uses the image of rolling a snowball to illustrate how ideas or opinions are developed on the agora: a small, miserable snowball of thought that would otherwise melt, when rolled around by interlocutors in an open public place, expands into a sizable ball of snow, and, occasionally, develops into a beautiful snowman.[9] Mamardashvili emphasizes the need to continuously sustain this process of snowballing, without which the human beings cannot think, feel, and want. Democracy can never be taken for granted precisely because it is a process, and not a state that can be achieved once and for all. If the movement of snowballing on the agora is obstructed, if the agora becomes opaque, democracy will vanish.

The agora supports the elaboration of thoughts, feelings, and desires of human beings. On the agora humans are able to work through all of these by practicing openness toward difference. Mamardashvili defines Western civilization, or “Europe,” as he calls it, by emphasizing that it is (by definition, or at its best) the practice of diversity and complexity. This is why Mamardashvili specifies that “Europe” might be found outside of geographical Europe, or would be only intermittently found in the nations that we ordinarily associate with European culture. To practice diversity and complexity one has to begin with the equality of voices and equality before the law—isonomia and isophōnia. Difference flourishes in open places, which is to say in places that allow one to work through tensions that arise from differences.

What are Creative Conversations?

Communication, insofar as it aims to transmit information or knowledge, presupposes a hierarchical distinction between the one who has this information and the one lacking it. Communication is based on the assumption that knowledge is transmittable, and that there exists a direct channel through which this knowledge can be passed on. Creative conversations, on the other hand, do not aim to impart knowledge or convince. Their goal is to incite a turning, and, moreover, the turning of the self, rather than altering the other.

The word “conversation” used to mean—and still carries the traces of this meaning—to be in a place or among persons, to live together, to have intercourse, society, and intimacy. The word itself comes from the Latin conversiōnem, and has the sense of turning round, rotation, revolution, and change in character, nature, form, or function. Its Greek equivalent is troposis one of key terms for Heraclitus and Plato. Conversations are instances of what Julia Kristeva calls “intimate revolt,” and in the Western cultural tradition necessarily connected to questioning and self-questioning.[10]

Such a revolt or turning happens because I am with another person, or together with somebody who is different from me. In conversations I open myself to difference, and so conversations are necessarily tense. This tension reveals to me my own difference from myself, i.e. my internal tension, and this gives me the momentum for transformation. Conversations are revolutionary, or have revolutionary potential because they are complex and charged. They reveal and bring to the foreground my prejudices, habits, and opinions—everything that solidified over time and now obstructs my development and growth. Conversations are difficult and can even be terrifying, but this is exactly why they enable the emergence of new harmonies.

Conversations are only possible between those for whom it is difficult to converse, yet who do not separate or disengage from the other’s difference—those who have committed themselves to engaging with each other in an open place. Conversations are risky and undecidable: being confronted with strangeness does not necessarily result in my turning. Yet without this tension and discomfort an arrow will not fly, a melody will not resound, and democracy will turn into tyranny.

This is why the stranger, and especially the internal stranger, is necessary for conversations—her presence reveals my own tension, my own edges.

Who are the strangers, and especially the internal strangers?

My notion of the internal stranger has its source in the ancient Greek opposition between the autochthon and the metic. Chthon means the surface of the earth, and an autochthon is, literally, a person who “sprung from the land itself,” and who claims a direct connection and a special right to a given place. The word “metic” comes from the ancient Greek metoikos that referred to a foreigner who was granted some rights that citizens had, but was not allowed to become a full citizen. The word “metoikos” combines the prefix meta- (among, between, besides, behind, or after), and oikos (a dwelling place, a home). The metic is always next to a home, or between homes. He or she is neither altogether excluded from a home, a city, or a state, nor can she call it his or her own. Métèque, is still a derogatory term in French, and in 1930s it was used by the extreme right to refer to foreigners and Jewish people.

The metic or the internal stranger is a settler from abroad, an alien resident, or a denizen. He or she is not a complete stranger to a given place, or state. The metic is certainly not a radical stranger, but rather, the one who decides to engage with a new place. It is a conscious decision on his or her part, and in emphasizing this I break from the ancient Greek use of this term. The internal stranger makes a decision to live in-between several languages, places, cultures, ethnicities, races, etc. He or she does not make herself homeless, but certainly renounces a definite, permanent, or unambiguous home. The metic accepts the idea that he or she will never be able to claim any language as his or her own, or as mastered by him or her. The internal stranger cannot claim a pure lineage, or a culture, let alone a superior or a major lineage or culture. He or she is not respectable and does not belong to clubs or other elite organizations. Neither here nor there, the metic reveals a contradiction because he or she lives a contradiction. A seeming contradiction, to be precise. The metic, however, can help resolve this and other contradictions from the precarious and fertile ground in between several places, languages, or cultures. 

Chto delat’ or What Is to Be Done?

If my argument is correct, namely, that strangers—especially internal strangers—are necessary for democracy, then the most effective way to destroy democracy is to purify a state of strangers, or make it homogenous. To destroy a democracy one must prevent creative conversations from taking place. This can be achieved, for instance, by cutting government funding to the arts and humanities (as with the NEH and the NEA in the U.S.), or by banning strangers from entering a state, by building the wall along one’s border, restricting citizenship, deporting illegal immigrants… Most effectively, perhaps, once can destroy democracy by inciting the fear of the stranger. This fear weakens and destroys civil society, and eventually leads to the enslaving of the autochthonous population.

What can one do to prevent the destruction of democracy? There are at least three levels on which one could work: 1) political activism, mostly available to those with full citizenship rights, 2) supporting public art or the structures that enable creative conversations, 3) working through one’s fears by means of reflective thinking,[11] reading, meditation (in the broad sense), or private artistic practices.

Political activism is, perhaps, the most self-evident of the three ways of strengthening democracy. In the US this involves calling and writing one’s representatives, voting, demanding transparency and accountability, protesting racism, entry bans, construction of walls, xenophobic policies, and abuse of political authority.  This category also includes helping, either financially or in some other practical way, concrete individuals who are in need: illegal immigrants, refugees, and victims of hate crimes. These actions, of course, are for the most part closed to non-citizens.

Such political work is absolutely necessary, but it will not have long-term effect if in conjunction with it one does not work at what I identified as the second and third levels—if one does not attempt to transform the human being, i.e. oneself. Such transformations include creative conversations that happen in the context of public art, i.e. the artistic events open to the general public. These include performances and exhibition at museums, street art, public lectures, book presentations at local book stores, poetry readings, and other creative events that are non-commercial, open to everybody, that do not shy away from the ordinary, and that challenge basic beliefs and ways of life, helping people to become more open to each other.

An example of such an event was the 2013 SoundWalk in Long Beach, California: several of the Long Beach streets were transformed into open-air performance spaces, where dozens of experimental artists set up their soundscapes and sound installations. People who came out for the event, but also passersby and residents of this diverse neighborhood had an opportunity to experience and engage with sounds and (strange) people, to experiment with and discover new aspects of themselves and the world. A great variety of artistic styles, levels of professionalism, and audience members converged in this event.[12]  

Such artistic activity is different in kind from political activism. Political activism has its limitations—it can change policy and help to mobilize those who already understand and support a cause, but it has no effect, or could even have an adverse effect, on those who do not already agree with its agenda. There can be art that attempts to convey a clear political message and has a specific agenda, but I would place such art in the category of direct political action. Recall that the goal of conversations is not to convey information or convince, and the same is true of the artistic practices that provide the framework for such conversations. To the second category, then, belongs creative activity that does not pursue specific practical or political goals, and that is in this sense is open-ended. The focus of such activity is the transformation of oneself through the encounter with the other.

The second and third ways of developing civil society might be the most effective ones in the long run, but are also the most difficult ones. They require confronting one’s fears and limitations—something that most people would prefer not to do. At the deepest level this involves working through one’s fear of death. It is not accidental that in Plato’s Phaedo Socrates defined the philosopher as the one who practices dying. The emphasis on practice, or repeated activity is significant: a practice involves the body, or, better, the entire human being, even if it seems that one is working only with his or her mind or soul. A practice is a process that takes time, and must be constantly reinforced with new effort.

The third kind of activity consists of continuous efforts to recognize my own stranger by performing the kind of exercises that might be called reflective or meditative. There are several traditions that might help me in this work. One of them is the philosophical tradition developed in the West, to which Plato’s definition of the philosopher belongs. This tradition must be distinguished from a purely intellectual activity that one frequently associates with professional Western philosophy. I can work with my fear through meditation, prayer, or artistic activity that is not public in nature.

For example, I could think reflectively about the implications of saying “yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or a divine  creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.”[13] I could practice saying this “yes” during my meditative practice. Such exercises are likely to help me work through my fear of strangeness and death.

Why all this effort? Why confront my greatest fears? Not for any morbid or perverse reason, but in order to stay alive, to retain the flexibility essential for life. I must practice dying in order not to die. I must open myself to the terrifying stranger in order not to be destroyed by my own strangeness.

An expanded version of this essay serves as an introduction to Sushytska’s manuscript Internal Strangers, Polis, and Philosophy, currently under review with Indiana University Press.




[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/in-northern-georgia-a-kkk-banner-seemed-to-some-a-sign-of-the-times/2017/03/12/de5a3518-05bd-11e7-b9fa-ed727b644a0b_story.html?utm_term=.895d8602fbdf Accessed on March 13, 2017.

Another major implication of such change in attitude is that the legal processes through which individuals received their visas and even citizenship are placed into question or undermined without the recourse to a legal process. In other words, the law is no longer recognized as the ultimate and final authority by those who are supposed to uphold it.

[5] See The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2017, http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2017/02/26/reichstag-fire-manipulating-terror-to-end-democracy/ Accessed on March 13, 2017.

[6] See Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought,Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982, 51.

[7] I hesitate to include social media among the agora structures, without a more careful consideration, as it is not clear to what extent it is open and horizontal.

[8] “European Responsibility,” translated by Alisa Slaughter and Julia Sushytska, https://mamardashvili.com/archive/interviews/responsibility-en.html Accessed on May 3, 2017. In the French Mamardashvili uses the phrase “le roulements de ces ‘gueulements’” which suggests haranguing or hectoring. In the similar contexts in Russian he uses the term “обкатывание.” The word means “making round or smooth by rolling,” or “breaking in.”

[9] See Mamardashvili’s Vil’niusskie lekcyi po sotsial’noi filosofii [Vilnius Lectures on Social Philosophy], Saint Petersburg: Azbuka, 2012, 124-125.

[10] Julia Kristeva, “New Forms of Revolt,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy—Revue de la philosophie française and de langue française, Vol. XXII (2) (2014): 1-19, 3.

[11] See Casey’s The World on Edge, as well as my “Reflective Thinking and Amechania: The Courage to Remain on the Edge” forthcoming in Thinking at the Edge: The Philosophy of Edward S. Casey, ed. by Brian Schroeder.

[12] For more information about this and other SoundWalks see http://soundwalk.org.

[13] Derrida, Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, 77.