About Peace: The Fear of the “Other”

People have warned me that it’s going to be a difficult ride. Coming up from the Caspian Sea I was cycling on a highway through rough mountains towards Qazvin, one of the probably dozen “former capitals of Iran”. The landscape was pretty bland: Brown mountains, scattered with sharp rocks that told the story of no rain, no water that ever washes off the edges of the stone and rounds the landscape. In between these dead peaks there was only one sign of life: The sound of grasshoppers. Bored from the never changing mountains I looked down onto the road and noticed how some grasshoppers were resting on the hot asphalt, turning away from me and clumsily jumping to the side to avoid being hit by a final turn of the wheel of life. They were indeed so clumsy that I had to make an effort not to roll over these creatures. Big fat green bodies with tiny needle legs and small, immovable red dots where eyes should be. I avoided them mainly because I was afraid to hear the sound of a cracking shell which gives me goose bumps just when I imagine it, and also to avoid having to look at the sauce left-over that would probably stick to my wheel in case of a fatal accident.

As I continued my hygiene slalom I started to see groups of grasshoppers crowding together on a brown, sometimes slightly wet surface. Further inspection showed that the grasshoppers are feeding on their unlucky mates who have been smashed by cars and trucks. The environment was so dry that the only source of liquid I could see was the bodily fluids of the fallen grasshoppers… I watched the cannibalism with disgust. The fact that these creatures are feeding on the dead bodies of their specimen did not make them seem more sympathetic.

The night approached and I was glad to spot some trees just a few hundred meters from the highway, close enough to howl the bike and bags through the rocks and grass but far enough to grant some privacy from the passing drivers. The sound of the traffic slightly diminished with the distance, but it did not get quieter as the noise from the insects more than compensated for the lack of engine rattle.

If you watch closely, you can spot some grasshoppers on the left tree =)

As always, at first I hung up the hammock. Pulling the strings around the trunk of the tree a large, finger-long grasshopper caught my attention. Damn, these beasts are here too! And not just one, every 20 centimeters there was another one and it did not seem as if they wanted to leave. The sun was setting quickly so I dropped the evacuation plan, decided for fighting instead of fleeing. While I was occupied with the hammock, a few grasshoppers invaded my luggage and some already made it into the open bags. They seemed to be particularly enticed by the tiny pasta pieces on my unwashed cooking gear. The thought of sharing my meal with these ugly monsters and possibly finding a forgotten one the next time I am preparing lunch was repelling and I started to kick them off my luggage. Their clumsiness made these grasshoppers an easy target and they fell one after the other. Lying in the sand with broken legs, fulfilling their role in the circle of the animal kingdom as bird feed at best or dying of a slower death, drying out… possibly being dried out by their specimen who feed on the helpless body.

As I observed the result of my calculated fury I started to ask myself a few questions:

  • Are they feeling pain?
  • Was it necessary to damage and kill these animals?
  • What provoked my angry reaction?

Maybe they are feeling pain and there would have been a non-violent solution. That alone made me understand that I acted wrongly. Now you may say… “common, these are just insects, don’t make a fuss about it!” I understand if you believe humans deserve more compassion than insects, and I agree. But, looking into the world, I see that we are often treating each other the way I treated the insects. The powerful is kicking the not-powerful even if it’s just about a nuisance … in Brazil, right now, indigenous tribes are murdered by white farmers so that they can gain more farming territory… people are killing people to gain more land. Not to survive. Just to gain more land for farming. More land, more money. I think we could find 1000s of examples where weak people are being killed, displaced, mistreated, enslaved for some powerful people’s financial interest.

Probably, I would have reacted differently if it was a few puppies whooping pooping around the hammock, surely I would not have kicked them. And I think that’s the answer to the third question. The “other” of those beings is making it easier for me to mistreat them. I can only do it because we do not speak the same language, they have six legs, funky eyes, move totally differently…. Everything about these creatures is foreign and repelling. Nobody in my circles would blame me for kicking something none of us can identify with. More than that, sometimes I feel we do not only tolerate violence against the other, we even welcome and encourage it. The thing that disgusts us should be eliminated and get out of our sight. Snails in your garden, spiders on the window… in most places these scenarios are not dangerous, yet most of us react with violence.

Making people “other”, it seems to me, has always been applied by leaders to prepare a group i.e. for a genocide against another group. It is an intrinsic part of nationalism and fascism (lat. fascis = bundle) to pronounce the features of the group so that they “bundle” and exclude the “other” so that in the event of violence it is easier to distance oneself from the pain of the others, it is easier to be uncompassionate.

I believe that if we can treat grasshoppers with the least violence needed, see that our disgust is a sign of the creature being “other” rather than because of real danger, we will start to treat nature in general and other human beings in particular with more respect. If we treat insects non-violently, we surely cannot accept violence towards people.

Now, I am aware this may sound a bit weird, but this is exactly what I have been thinking about that night in the desert mountains of Iran and it kept having an impact on my behavior towards animals and “other” people throughout the trip and beyond until now.

Originally published at thebamboorider.com.