Column | Hospitality is a key question for all of us

The boundaries of the political community are always under discussion. Who belongs to the people, who is allowed to speak, who decides what we talk about has shifted throughout history. In our time, children claim their voice with climate strikes, refugees cross national borders. Boundaries – geographical, ideological, or linguistic – always seem to be fixed. Because we are used to them, because they give us something to hold on to. But you have to be very careful about drawing boundaries, because any boundary also excludes.

Last week I read that the Netherlands is heading for a “socially disruptive” asylum crisis. According to the COA, the IND, the police and the Ministry of Justice and Security, measures must be taken, otherwise “unregistered aliens will […] roam the country and cause a nuisance, especially in large cities”. The Netherlands has become rich partly through the exploitation of others, and our colonial consumerism still contributes to global inequality and pollution. We have a duty to receive people affected by it. The climate crisis, in which we have a larger share than less prosperous countries, will force many, many more people to leave their homes.

But it also seems as if hospitality is something extra, which comes later, when it is a very basic ethical movement. Hospitality is the essence of culture, writes Jacques Derrida, ethics is hospitality. Who the other is is always the question, but also how you relate to the other. Making space for others in yourself, your home and your country is a key question for individuals and societies. And that has been lost in the discourse. Not only because the discourse is neoliberal (strongly focused on property and self), also because we consider the status quo normal.

Prime Minister Rutte said in this context that there are limits to the possibilities. But there are no limits to the possibilities. With laws and regulations. Derrida points to the tension between the appeal that radical hospitality makes on us and its recording, which restricts hospitality. We should be talking about that tension.

As elsewhere (think of the farmers’ protests), the media is also a political player. In showing injustice it is not enough to tell stories of individuals. Violence is also in the language, a word like ‘nuisance’ stigmatises. Mentioning numbers is also part of the ‘full is full’ logic.

Which brings me to a second question about hospitality. Into several pieces NRC the mousetrap was presented as a solution. A blow trap is humane, a mouse trap is ideal. That is unworthy of a critical newspaper. Mice and rats are creatures with feelings, thoughts, friendships and an irreplaceable soul. Killing them is not normal. There are also researchers working on non-violent coexistence, let them have their say. Writing about mice as a nuisance, unhygienic or a carrier of diseases (humans transmit many more diseases) stigmatizes them. The land also belongs to them. Mice are not “mice.” From my own ex-lab mice, I learn about their practices of care and ways of giving meaning to life.

It is a coincidence on which side of the border you are born, whether you are ‘human’ or ‘Dutch’ or something else. We are all travelers in time, strangers to death, defenseless to love. If you have the space, the least you can do is be hospitable. In the language, in your home, as a country. There are limits to that. But it’s not these.

Eva Meijer is a writer and philosopher. She writes a column every other week.