It is not because it is so unusual that I tell this sentimental story. On the contrary, in poor countries unfortunately it is only too well-known and widespread, but it does touch on the essence of the universal ethic: justice. I am well aware that justice is not a simple concept, and that every culture in the world has thought long and hard about it, and that the American thinker John Rawls, with his book A Theory of Justice of 1971, made a stimulating contribution to the current debate on this subject. But those who think justice is hackneyed and passé, should not start discussing ethics and civilization.
Justice, says Rawls, is the outcome of human rationality: if we used our common sense we would place honesty and justice at the very foundation of society. Justice, of course, does not mean that everyone is exactly the same and receives the same. We are not all alike: some people are prettier, cleverer, stronger or more temperamental than others, but those are inborn and thus accidental characteristics and should not lead to extreme inequality. Insofar as inequality should rationally be allowed to exist at all in society, two conditions have to be applied: everyone should have equal chances so that any inequality can be cancelled out through the person's own efforts; and those who are less in a position to achieve this should be given preferential treatment. Not out of selflessness but precisely because of self-interested foresight: we might find ourselves in the same boat tomorrow.
However, Rawls emphasizes that one form of inequality must never be sanctioned: inequality of respect. Every person has a right to respect because a life without respect is meaningless. Thus a society that damages people's self-respect is by definition unjust and uncivilized.
Another word for undermining respect is humiliation, and the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit recently wrote a very intelligent book on the subject (The Decent Society, 1996). According to him, humiliation is manifested in two important ways: firstly in the negation of someone's intrinsic value, and secondly in the denial of their identity. In Agnes's case, for example, we see that she is never treated as a valued, responsible and adult human being. She was repeatedly belittled, as a living-in maid who narrowly escaped indecent assault, as a wife who was beaten, and as a home seeker who was forced to prostitute herself. As a maid, she also learnt that she must not look her white master or mistress in the eyes. Even if the man were walking around naked she must behave as though she were only concerned with getting on with her work. Conversely, the lady never looked at Agnes which meant that she never saw her in any real detail, and was thereby able to blot out her emotions and feelings. Agnes was regarded as a stunted incomplete creature, or as a household pet or, even worse, as an unfeeling object.
By her husband Agnes was treated as a slave who could be beaten and raped, yet who had to remain loyal and obedient to him and his mother. Her self-confidence was undermined for years and she learnt to resign herself to her fate and accept her status. By making her a slave, her husband felt himself her master; he owed his superiority to her; without her acknowledgment he would have been nothing but a poorly paid worker.
But the most shameful denial of her intrinsic value came from the state when Agnes was
looking for a home: her desperate attempt to make something of herself and improve her
life made her, at that moment, more vulnerable than ever. Defenceless and powerless, she
was no longer capable of keeping her self-respect intact. And it was a modern government
official, of all people, who defiled her `honour'; an official, moreover, whose job it was
to ensure the just apportioning of scarce commodities and who, according to Rawls, should
favour the less fortunate. Thus the state undermined her integrity in that she was forced
to corrupt herself. She was denied the possibility of remaining true to her self-image as
an honourable and decent woman, whereby her identity was negated - identity in the sense
of what you say you are, and what you remain, through all the trials and tribulations of
One might question whether my outrage at the official is not over-exaggerated. Might it be based on the wrong assumption that on that Caribbean island there exists a `modern bureaucracy' (in the sense that Max Weber applies it) which treats all people equally, irrespective of who they are, and which reduces every client to a number on an application form, thereby ensuring that no one is treated differently or preferentially. But the majority of government administrations in developing countries are not modernized in that sense at all, instead they have become monstrosities with half-feudal, half-modern traits, considered by some people to be one of the main reasons for underdevelopment. This view is reflected by the Amsterdam sociologist Abram de Swaan when he describes the government of many developing countries as `a hypertrophic and hydrocephalic state mechanism in which a web of family ties, tribal bonds, relations and connections is insidiously spun, draining all economic activity, putting a damper on every cultural initiative, until all political life becomes stultified by immobility, official corruption, bureaucratic interference and censoriousness, favouritism and nepotism.'
Those are uncommonly harsh words and fortunately it is now internationally recognized
that democracy and `Good Governance' are at least as important to the success of
development programmes and projects as knowledge and technology. My worry is only that the
accent is now more on the efficiency of the state machinery, and the possibility of
choosing from several parties, than on much more fundamental issues such as preventing
humiliation and safeguarding self-respect. I even get the painful impression that those
countries which shout the loudest about a universal ethic, draw a veil over their own
obligation to prevent humiliation.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by another sentimental story - the story of Agnes's daughter, Diana, who was already wanting to go to the Netherlands when I first talked to Agnes on Curaçao. Her sole reason for wanting to leave the island was that she was unable to find a suitable partner. There was something amiss with all her friends: one was an addict, another was unemployed, and yet another was a criminal. In the Netherlands, she thought that men were civilized. They did not hit people, brought their wages home and even helped about the house.
But white men did not want her, at least not as a life partner. Everybody wanted to go to bed with a beautiful black girl, but once she started talking about a permanent relationship or marriage, then the Dutchmen reacted in exactly the same way as the men on Curaçao. In the end she met a nice African boy from Nigeria, an artist who painted beautifully and wrote songs about her. He was keen to marry because he was seeking asylum, but for him love was more important than papers, and he did not want to force her into it. Diana vacillated, fretted, rang her mother, and before she knew it the regulations had changed and it seemed he had to return to his country to marry her there and wait for a visa. The immigration police barked at her and sent her away, a solicitor she had consulted could do nothing for her and, to her horror, she was pregnant.
They made plans to go to Nigeria after the baby's birth, to his family who, although poor, respected pride and honour. In the meantime they were happy as they were, he found night-shift work in a factory and the first thing he did on getting home at two in the morning was to sing the baby a song. But one day that song was rudely interrupted when three strange men suddenly appeared in the room; there had been no ring on the doorbell and the door had not been forced. He was to get dressed and show his papers. Diana was to deliver the rest of his things to the police station the next day. Diana was furious at this invasion of her privacy, but she was roughly shoved on the forehead and fell backwards onto the bed. Her boyfriend was taken away in handcuffs without even being allowed to give her a goodbye kiss.
When Diana arrived at the station with his suitcase she was told - after waiting three
hours - that he was already on his way to Schiphol. She rushed to the airport only to see
him standing behind the thick glass, head bowed, still hand-cuffed, unreachable. There was
an uproar going on around him because one of the Nigerians was putting up a resistance.
But he was overpowered by four hefty men who punched him until he had quietened down
enough to be bound with tape. Her boyfriend had turned away, ashamed of what had happened
to him - especially, perhaps, of what he had become: an unlawful person, an illegal
Rawls's theory rests on the assumption that people enter into a contract with each other to create the best possible society which - as has been said - would ideally be founded on the idea of justice. A strictly hypothetical premise, of course, because the majority of societies are born of revolutions and uprisings, migrations and relocations, subjugation and emancipation. Nevertheless, the welfare states that have arisen in the West have implemented many of Rawls's principles, but at a price: justice was restricted to indigenous, lawful citizens. Social security, sickness benefits and pensions were exclusively for the benefit of those who, at an arbitrary point in time, happened to be within the state's borders. All those outside those borders, and certainly those coming from countries which had no comparable judicial system, suddenly became unwelcome guests. Initially immigrants like foreign workers and refugees were still tolerated, as long as they were economically profitable and in small numbers. But since the beginning of the 1980s the borders of the various welfare states have de facto been closed.
What we have now is the wry situation where a theory which should have created a more humane civilization is mercilessly turning its back on the largest body of humanity. This can, of course, be seen as an economic necessity because the scarce resources can no longer be divided up between an ever-increasing number of people, and because those citizens who have managed to put a bit aside should for once be given preference. Nevertheless, it is tragic that such a high moral aim, such an ideal of civilization, such an ethical principle as justice should have to retreat behind the façade of a non-civilized era.
One problem remains however. Avishai Margalit reminds us that justice consists not only of an equal division of opportunities and meagre resources, but also of the principle of equality of human respect. There is a world of difference between offering a hungry person a meal on a plate and throwing some bread on the ground. The starving person will, naturally, eat it up because physical pain and the instinct to survive go deeper than the sense of humiliation, but no respect is shown.
Thus respect it not just a question of substance but also of style, the meaning of which is embodied in the word `decency'. Everyone is entitled to decency, including beggars, criminals and illegal immigrants. It might have been legally correct to deport Diana's boyfriend but, in so doing, decency and respect were not brought into play. In this particular case, it was only a question of not being allowed to say goodbye, but the Belgian journalist Chris de Stoop has recorded humiliating scenes in his book about the two-hundred-thousand illegal immigrants who are expelled from Western Europe each year (Haal de was maar binnen, 1996). The Dutch government, for instance, even went so far as to have a `technical appliance' devised to prevent biting, spitting and screaming during deportations: a human muzzle. The appliance was finally never used, but the idea was mooted.
Perhaps the accent on decency and style sounds sentimental, but a civilized society
should be sentimental and sensitive, not only about the rock-solid principles of honesty
and justice, but also the softer, and less tangible and obvious experiences of dignity and
Anil Ramdas (1958) is an essayist. He also produces radio and television programmes. His subjects embrace culture and civilization in their broadest sense. His works include De papegaai, De stier en de klimmende Bougainvillea (1992), In mijn vaders huis (Part 1, 1993; Part 2, 1994) and De beroepsherinneraar (1996). Agnes's complete life story is chronicled in Strijd van de dansers.