The Heroism of Hospitability


One of the most suspicious topics within contemporary literature seems to be the theme of heroism. Ever since the era of postmodernism dawned on western culture it has become a common wisdom that acts of heroism can either be reduced and explained by the societal structures in which they operate or they can be unmasked as being acts of more mundane figures instead: The once heroic Vikings just got lucky that their environment consists out of a lot of trees to built a superb navy, cowboys are nothing more than glorified herders and Gandhi was obsessed with sex. Moreover, the free market ideology has appropriated heroism for its own goals in, for example, the famous Apple ‘Think different’ commercials were footage of historical geniuses such as Picasso and Einstein is used to make people buy Apple products.

Yet, at the same time, it can’t be denied that sometimes people do good things and that some of these things are so extraordinary that they deserved to be written down in stories.  A recent story about this kind of heroism is the story of Paul Rusesabagina as portrayed in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’. Rusesabagina was a Hutu who used the hotel of which he was the manager to shelter thousands of Tutsi’s who would otherwise had been slaughtered during the Rwandese genocide. What’s interesting about Rusesabagina is that when asked about, he denied to be a hero. When he looked back on his lifesaving acts, he stated that he never realised that he was an exception. During the entire conflict he always thought that other people were doing the same thing in other places so he never envisioned himself as doing something heroic.

Academics who theorize about genocides tend to use the concept of conformism to explain why these events happen: During times of genocide an entire society can be put under a spell of a dehumanising rhetoric which makes them conform really easily to the most diabolic norms of behaviour.  Personally I don’t think this concept is of much use. What’s conformist and what’s non-conformist changes with the hour. Today, marketing bureaus are telling us non-stop to be as unique as possible yet we have, as a society, never been so prone to fall back under a regime of hatred towards the other. The non-conformist hospitability that Rusesabagina offered to the Tutsi’s who used his hotel as a safe haven during the genocide would be considered an act of conformism in a more peaceful context: A good hotel manager practices hospitability every day.

I don’t think the conformism or non-conformism of the practicing of hospitability can teach us something about heroism. I think the practicing of hospitability as such is more of a defining feature. A hospitable person is a person who is to such a great extend proud of a place he or she takes care of, that this person wants to share this place with other people. As such, the concept of hospitability seems to be able to help us solve the dichotomy between the xenophobic right and the multicultural left. To be proud of your country is something the political right has the biggest claim to, whereas the sharing with other people has always been a leftist idea. It seems then, that the concept of hospitability is able to built a bridge between these two worlds.  The heroes of the 21th century will be people who are able to do the same.

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