Conclusion: Toward Hospitality as Earth Ethics

This earthquake in the landscape of tolerance shakes up our worldview. Elsewhere, I have associated earth with ethics and world with politics, and the necessarily tense relation between them as the space of justice (see Oliver 2015). We must move beyond mere tolerance and toward ethical and political responsibility. Taking up the earthquake metaphor running through this book, a just political approach to the refugee crisis requires a new ethical approach to sharing the planet. We must move beyond both rescue politics and carceral humanitarianism, which entails moving beyond fenced and walled national borders. To do so, we must reconceive of our relationships to other people who share planet earth, beyond citizenship and national identity. Furthermore, we must think of our obligations to others not just in terms of human rights or humanitarian aid but also in terms of radical hospitality and responsibility as response to those in need. In conclusion, I turn to Derrida’s conception of unconditional hospitality, and his distinction between visitation and invitation, to begin to rethink our obligations to asylum seekers beyond detention centers and refugee camps. In the end, I propose an earth ethics wherein our obligations are based on our common planetary home rather than on our national or individual homes. Rather than see ourselves as Americans or Europeans, offering aid to others less fortunate, we should see ourselves as earthlings sharing the planet. Rather than a rescue politics that requires perilous escape and lifeboat scenarios, we should consider our ethical obligations beyond national borders and beyond mere physical proximity. Once we consider our position in relation to others from an earthly perspective, we can no longer deny our interdependence and our shared dependence on each other and our planetary home.

Those familiar with Derrida’s notion of unconditional hospitality know that he sets it against Kant’s cosmopolitan notion of limited or conditioned hospitality.[1] Kant articulates a right to limited hospitality of a guest, particularly in the context of commercial trade.[2] Derrida insists that true or just hospitality must be without conditions or limits. He opposes just hospitality to hospitality by right, which is always limited.[3] For him, hospitality always operates between these two poles of the unconditional (the ethical demand) and the conditional (the political reality).[4] Justice is always on the horizon of this tension between the unconditional and the conditional, not only because justice is always deferred but also because of the inherent conflict between the concept of unconditional hospitality and the realities of limited hospitality. The gap between the two is so great, Derrida suggests, we don’t even understand or know what hospitality is, in large part because hospitality is not just a matter of understanding or knowledge; it is not, contra Kant, just a matter of categorical imperatives, duties, and reason but also of compassion, desire, and a certain “madness” Derrida associates with Kierkegaard’s madness of impossible faith. In fact, Derrida claims that as soon as we identify the guest as foreigner (or refugee), we’ve already done him violence by reducing him to a category that we think we understand. Furthermore, by questioning him, we continue our violence, not only because we may do so in a language unknown to him, and because we most likely are interrogating him in an unfamiliar legal process, but also because we are calling on him to account for himself and thereby subjecting him to our assumed superior judgment.[5] Insofar as hospitality is the opening of the home or ethos, it is not simply one obligation among others; rather, “hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others. Insofar as it has to do with the ethos, that is, the residence, one’s home, the familiar place of dwelling, inasmuch as it is a manner of being there, the manner in which we relate to ourselves and to others, to others as our own or as foreigners, ethics is hospitality; ethics is so thoroughly coextensive with the experience of hospitality” (Derrida 2001, 16–17; cf. Derrida and Dufourmantelle 2000, 149, 151).

This is to say, the ethos of our cohabitation is at stake, and conversely, cohabitation on our shared planet is a matter of ethics/ethos of home.[6] When we broaden our perspective to that of the earth and those with whom we share the earth, when we think of home in relation to ethics and politics, it becomes clear that everyone belongs and has a right to home. All mammals, humans included, need a safe place to sleep at night. This is precisely what refugees lack. We could contrast the political realities of homelessness and the lack of sleep with the ethical insomnia Derrida (following Levinas) associates with ethics. Both Levinas and Derrida repeatedly use the metaphor of insomnia to stress the urgency of the ethical obligations to others. Our ethical responsibility should keep us awake at night and make us vigilant. Ethics can never sleep. But, what do we make of this ethical sleeplessness when considering the harsh realities of refugee sleeplessness? Here again, the tension between politics and ethics shows itself. A safe place to sleep requires doors and windows; and yet, when we close those doors and windows to others, we turn our backs on the ethical call from those in need.

Derrida identifies a paradox at the heart of hospitality between the need for a home with doors and windows, fences and borders—that is to say, limits—and the openness required by unconditional hospitality. To be a host, one must have a home. Yet, as Derrida describes it, hospitality requires a reversal between host and guest such that the host becomes almost a hostage to his guest. His hyperbolic account of hospitality points to the assumptions of mastery and sovereignty already operating in our everyday notions of hospitality, particularly when it comes to welcoming foreigners and refugees, that as soon as there are doors and windows, someone holds their keys (Derrida 2000, 14).

Certainly national sovereignty is part and parcel of the law of hospitality, particularly as it is set out in international law concerning refugees and asylum seekers. And, as Derrida argues, national sovereignty is always in an “autoimmune” relationship with democracy. In terms of hospitality, this means that not only is there a conflict between the concept and practice of hospitality but also the concept of hospitality itself operates according to an autoimmune logic: “Hospitality is a self-contradictory concept and experience which can only self-destruct, put otherwise, produce itself as impossible, only be possible on the condition of its impossibility, or protect itself from itself, autoimmunize itself in some way, which is to say, deconstruct itself—precisely—in being put into practice” (5). Derrida drives home the problems with our everyday notions of hospitality with his distinction between the hospitality of invitation and the hospitality of visitation: “In visitation there is no door. Anyone can come at any time and can come in without needing a key for the door. There are no customs checks with a visitation. But there are customs and police checks with an invitation” (14). The hospitality of invitation is a limited, controlled, monitored hospitality, whereas the hospitality of visitation is unconditional hospitality, which is not controlled by the host. The visitor arrives uninvited, unexpected, unknown, and perhaps even unwelcomed; and yet the host has an ethical obligation that comes from a hospitality of justice (rather than merely of rights) to take her in, even if her presence threatens our way of life: “a visitation could be an invasion by the worst. Unconditional hospitality must remain open without horizon of expectation, without anticipation, to any surprise visitation” (17). Derrida’s radical hospitality suggests that to avoid the “worst”—the worst violence—we must allow the possibility of the worst to enter. This is the autoimmune logic of hospitality. It must always remain open to what comes, for better or worse. And while our practices of hospitality can never live up to this ideal, without holding on to the concept of just unconditional, impossible hospitality, our everyday practices of hospitality are hollow, illusions of hospitality and self-deception at best, or alibis for continued violence at worst.

In light of Derrida’s standard of unconditional, or just, hospitality, the carceral humanitarian aid of refugee camps and detention centers falls far short. Indeed, camps and lockups hardly meet the basic criteria for limited, conditional hospitality. For, with very few exceptions, it’s difficult to use the word hospitality to describe the situation of most refugees and asylum seekers when they arrive at the borders of their host countries, which have barely begun to provide even for the basic needs of refugees and asylum seekers or to provide the basic human rights supposedly guaranteed by international conventions. What would it mean, then, to think beyond rights discourse, beyond borders, beyond detention centers and refugee camps, and toward justice as radical hospitality? First, and foremost, we would have to move beyond notions of national sovereignty and citizenship. Rather than starting with human rights, or citizen’s rights, as the basis of political (or ethical) obligations, we would have to acknowledge our interdependence on this shared planet, our only home. Rather than claim the sovereign right to welcome others into our own homes, we would have to acknowledge that the foundation for that home is the earth itself, which belongs to us not as property but rather as what we share with every other earthling. In other words, the grounds for our claiming any home at all is the home we all share, planet earth. Insofar as climate change and climate displacement exacerbate, if not cause, most forced migration on the planet today, we need to come to terms with the fact that earth is our only home, and therefore we have an obligation to it, and to those with whom we share the planet.

Some “climatologists say Syria is a grim preview of what could be in store for the larger Middle East, the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The drought, they maintain, was exacerbated by climate change. . . . Syria’s drought has destroyed crops, killed livestock and displaced as many as 1.5 million Syrian farmers. In the process, it touched off the social turmoil that burst into civil war” (Wendle 2015; see also Kelley et al. 2015). In the last seven years, an estimated one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, and that number is on the rise thanks to climate change and poor design and planning (see Displacement Monitoring Center 2015). There is evidence that climate change plays a central role in mass migrations in Africa and has led to hundreds of thousands in refugee camps (see Schwartzstein 2016; Hrala 2016). The problem of climate refugees is only going to get worse. And international law and UN guidelines do not consider those escaping natural disasters and drought or climate change refugees. Can we say that people fleeing drought and famine, or flooding and receding shores, in their homelands are being persecuted? If so, by whom?

These questions make clear the need to rethink refugees beyond identity politics that requires one group at war with another or the persecution of one group by another. Earth ethics requires us to begin to think of ourselves, and our relation to each other, beyond group or national identities and toward interrelationality determined by the interconnectedness of ecosystems and our biosphere. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to embrace an earth ethics as a response ethics through which we consider our obligations to others as obligations to ourselves, and vice versa, for our very survival depends on it (Oliver 2015). We need to respond to others in ways that open up, rather than close down, the possibility of response.

In terms of refugees and asylum seekers, whether they are escaping the violence of civil war, natural disasters, or climate change, they should not be detained, incarcerated, or locked into camps but rather at least be granted the rights coming to them under international law and, moreover, the ethical responsibility owed to them as fellow inhabitants of our earthly home. As we have seen, current conditions in refugee camps and detention centers violate some basic human rights supposedly guaranteed by international law and UN conventions on refugees and asylum seekers. More than this, rescue politics and carceral humanitarian create an impossible subject position for the “refugee,” which simultaneously requires and undermines both national and individual sovereignty. Incarcerating and interning refugees is not only politically wrong in terms of our own standards set out by the UN but also ethically wrong in terms of our obligations to each other as coinhabitants of our shared planetary home.