Recognition, Part 1 - Why Ukrainians but not Syrians?

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Welcome to the Insert Philosophy Here podcast. Inserting the principles of philosophy into real life.

In this week’s episode of the Insert Philosophy Here podcast’s philosophical look on current world events, the dominant world event, of course, is still Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The previous episode, I talked about the just war theory, and please look up that episode of the podcast. In this episode, I want to talk about the question of why Ukrainians, but not Syrians.

What I mean by that is that one of the responses to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees. This is undeniably a morally good thing to do. Innocent people who are being harmed by war should be given safety, security, and the basics of human life. But we cannot forget that this is only a few years after a very similar situation in which the Syrian people were attacked by forces, again backed by Putin, creating a refugee crisis, a humanitarian crisis, and in that humanitarian crisis, many Syrians were not welcomed by many European countries — the same European countries that are now welcoming Ukrainians.

How are we to understand this dichotomy? This apparent contradiction? One of the ways that we can understand that philosophically is focusing on some of the comments that certain people have made — both public elected officials and general public people on social media forums.

Those statements tend to be of the form. “oh the Ukrainians — they look like us.” This was most notably stated by a British politician, who shall remain nameless, but it speaks to a common sentiment. And while I absolutely don’t approve of this astonishingly ignorant and immoral statement, I understand it, because I live in Prague. I look at the images of Kyiv and various other Ukrainian cities and I see cities that look similar to my adoptive home here in Prague.

But these same people who say Ukrainians look like us, looked at Syrians a few years earlier and said they don’t look like us. This is a massively ignorant and immoral rejection of fellow human beings because they may be darker skinned. They may speak a different language. They may have a different religion. While being an attitude that we should condemn, it is an attitude that we need to understand why — what’s going on here.

When I heard these declarations of. “oh, the Ukrainians are people who look like us,” I remembered a conversation I had back in 2017 with a young Syrian man.

My Conversation with a Young Syrian Scholar

We were both speaking at a conference at the University of Cambridge. And this young man, who I will not name, was telling me — he was pretty much trying to talk to anyone who would listen to him, understandably — that he’s a Syrian. He had gone to the University of Cambridge, at that point, six years ago. He had entered as an undergraduate.

The war had happened in Syria, and he has been stranded in the UK ever since. He’d been going from one temporary arrangement to another, but that the UK government was not accepting his application for asylum, his application for just something, anything. The university was helping him out; they gave him an extra year or post doctorate, but he was still in this situation. He was literally a man without a country. He told me he had received some prejudice, and he told me, as he had told other,s about the uncooperativeness of the UK Government because he was Syrian.

And I remember him saying: “But we are just like you. We are Syrians. We do the same things that you do. We have cars. We have apartments, we have jobs. We do the same things. Maybe we listen to slightly different music, maybe watch different movies. Maybe we speak in a different language, but we are like you.”

And I agreed with him. But I had no legal ability to help him. So when UK politicians are saying. “oh, the Ukrainians look like us.” I remember this young Syrian man who said, “I look like you.” And he was correct.

The bottom line here is that the UK Government was not recognizing this Syrian man as a full fledged human being. Obviously, the UK Government is currently having some difficulties recognizing Ukrainians as full human beings, but other countries have welcomed Ukrainians as full human beings. They have recognized Ukrainians as deserving of refuge. A few years after they refused this same refuge to Syrians in a very similar situation.


That’s where I think of the philosophy of recognition. Recognition is a concept that remains virtually unknown outside of philosophy and tends to be relatively unknown within philosophy, especially in analytical philosophy which ignores these social issues. Most people who do know about recognition. think of it in terms either of Hegel’s conceptions back in the early 1800s, Charles Taylor’s political conceptions of recognition of social groups, and maybe Axel Honneth’s sense of recognition — again, mostly in terms of legal recognition.

Ultimately what recognition means as a concept — as a social reality — is that recognition is a question of what we value and why. So this is a first in a multipart discussion of the concept of recognition, which is central to and essential to social cohesion and social structures.

All of our social institutions, all of our morality, all of human society, is ultimately based on the concept of recognition. The social reality of us as human beings recognizing other human beings as valuable. When we do not recognize others or human beings as valuable, we are not recognizing them. We are MISrecognizing them and that’s when problems start socially.

The idea of recognition within philosophy goes way back to the time of John Jacques Rousseau, and I’ll talk more about the history of recognition theory in a later episode of this podcast. But in this episode I want to talk about what’s at stake in recognition and why it is an essential concept to any view of human society, and that’s why the war and the double standard of welcoming Ukrainian refugees but not welcoming Syrian refugees illustrates what is at stake in recognition.

First off, what are we philosophers meaning when we talk about recognition? Recognition within philosophy is mostly used by German language philosophers. That’s because Hegel, who first introduced the term, used the German word Anerkennung, and my pronunciation of German is not that good, but Anerkennung, which is a word that does not have an exact match in English, is translated as recognition, and that’s not an incorrect translation.

But in English, the problem is that recognition as a word has two meanings. On the one hand, it means to identify something. I recognize that object is a tree. That is a different word in German called Erkennen. So I recognize that as a tree is Erkennen recognition. The other meaning of recognition in English is to acknowledge value and respect something. I recognize you as a student and treat you as a student deserves to be treated. You recognize me as a professor and treat me as a professor deserves to be treated. That’s Anerkennung in German. It is this latter definition — to respect and value something according to what it is — that is the sense of recognition throughout Hegel’s philosophy and all subsequent philosophers of recognition theory since.

What makes recognition so essential to society is that what we value determines how we live life, how we perceive the things around us, how we respond to things around us. Thus it is the glue that holds communities together. It is the weapon that can divide communities and it becomes the basis of the foundation of all of our social institutions.

The importance of recognition can be seen most easily in legal settings, which is why most philosophers of recognition theory have focused on the legal aspect of recognition. For example, if you are a citizen of a particular country — this is not a given necessarily because you are only a citizen of the country if that country’s government recognizes you as a citizen.

Certainly it is true that most nations of the world, most governments, have declared that if you are a natural born person in that country. If you were born in country A, then you are a citizen of country A. You are not a citizen of any other country and indeed every country in the world more or less almost exclusively, really, recognizes this fundamental social reality that you are a citizen of the country in which you were physically born.

But that recognition of your citizenship can be taken away from you. For example, the UK Government has recently taken away the UK citizenship of people who they deemed aided and abetted what are recognized as terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Citizenship can be taken away from one.

Citizenship is also something you can renounce. Scenes that we have seen recently of Russian citizens — recognized by the Russian government as citizens of Russia — burning their passports, denouncing and declaring, “I am no longer a citizen of Russia because I oppose the war.”

Because you are a citizen of a country, you have certain rights within that country and maybe certain rights within other countries depending upon that country’s relations with your country of citizenship. I, for example, hold an American passport because I am an American citizen. A citizen of the United States of America that passport is a symbol of my citizenship, and it gives me certain rights. It gives me the right to re-enter the United States, not an absolute infinite right, certainly, but a basic right to re-enter the United States, the land of my birth, the land of my citizenship.

That American passport also gives me certain rights attached to my citizenship that are recognized by other countries that have travel agreements with the United States. I can travel to a large number of countries visa-free. The visa of course, to travel to other countries with which there is not a travel agreement, is a recognition that you have the right to enter this country. If we give you that right, we recognize that you are a person who has the right to hold a visa to travel into our country.

I live in Prague right now, as I mentioned, a city in the Czech Republic. Because the Czech Government has recognized me as having the right to have legal residence in the Czech Republic which I have lived for approaching four years now. But only because I did the things that are required by the recognition system — the visa system of the Czech Republic — they deemed me as someone worthy of recognition to be a long-term resident of the Czech Republic. That doesn’t mean that I ever announced my US citizenship. I’m a citizen of the United States. I am a resident of the Czech Republic. This is a fairly common arrangement throughout the world. People who are citizens of one country but live in another country.

All of these arrangements are legal recognitions of human beings. If someone is a refugee, they could be either recognized as one or not, and that’s where the legal system and the moral system gets a little tricky. If you are fleeing a war zone or fleeing persecution in the country that you were a resident of, or most likely a citizen of, you are a refugee in matter of fact: you’re fleeing a conflict. You’re fleeing oppression. But you may not be recognized as a legitimate [legal] refugee by foreign governments.

We saw these contradictions with the Syrian refugees — “migrants” as they are sometimes called — because certain governments in Europe did not recognize these human beings as being legitimate refugees who deserve asylum. It’s an issue of recognition. In a sense, legal, because this is a legal issue of who is allowed refugee status, who is granted political asylum, but it is inextricably attached to a moral judgment.

A person fleeing war is fleeing war. They’re running for their lives; and if you say you’re not a refugee, you’re saying that that’s not a legitimate human being, or at least you are saying that they are not legitimately fleeing. So what is the alternative to that? You should just stay there and get killed when you repatriate someone? When you deport someone who has traveled to your country claiming asylum because they are a refugee in fact, but not legally recognized as a refugee., you are literally saying, “you, we do not value you. We do not consider you to be someone valuable enough, meaningful enough, to be admitted into our country where you will be safe.”

Obviously these things are complicated, but you cannot escape this reality that when someone shows up in your country and says I am fleeing war, you have to make a judgment of recognition. Is this person in front of me someone who deserves the safety and security of being allowed into this country? Certainly the issue of any individual case of refugees and asylums is complicated. Some are more simple than others, but I don’t want to gloss over the complexities of what you do with refugees from war or refugees from political repression. That’s for political scientists and international relations people to hash out.

My point that I’m wanting to make here is that all of those decisions, all of those conversations that need to happen on these issues are dependent in part on recognition. Do you recognize this person as a full human being? If you do recognize them as a full human being, and you recognize that their situation is indeed dire, then you are morally obligated and usually legally obligated to help them.

The nations of Europe have done wonderfully in opening their countries, their borders, to Ukrainian refugees. As well they should. This is a good thing. In my country, the Czech Republic, people have raised literally billions of Czech koruna, hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, or UK pounds, to help the Ukrainian people. Both those who have stayed in Ukraine, and those who have left Ukraine. Those acts are recognition of the value of other human beings.

And just today this morning we heard that various. Refugees who were trapped at the border of Poland and Belarus are now being forced by the Belarussian Government into Ukraine. They had tried for months to force these people across the Polish border and the Polish people almost acted like this was an invasion, and again I know this is a complicated issue and there are political repercussions. To be sure these people were being used as pawns by the Belarussian Government. So now these people, these pawns, are being used by Belarus again, to try to force them into Ukraine, where hello, there’s a war going on. This is because the Belarussians are not recognizing these people, who are interestingly mostly from the Middle East and Afghanistan, they’re not recognizing them as human beings.

That’s what recognition is about. If you recognize someone as a human being, then you treat them as a human being deserves to be treated. If you do not recognize them as a human being, then that opens up all kinds of possibilities. You are basically being a jerk or worse to this human being who you don’t see as a human being because you are misrecognizing them. Thus, this misrecognition, this dehumanization, literal dehumanization of another human being, is at the root of all crime, violence, and of course war.

I remember a junior high school teacher of mine saying war begins with the dehumanization of the enemy. And I’ve always remembered those words, and I see it now so clearly in recognition theory in which I work as a philosopher. When you dehumanize the enemy, that permits you to commit atrocities on that person, or that whole group of people, or that whole country.

The old saying, “if you can get someone to believe in absurdities, you can get them to commit atrocities,” makes sense when you understand it in terms of recognition of other human beings. If you accept the absurdity that a group of people are not human, then you are permitting abuses — atrocities — to be committed against the person.

That’s what the Nazis did, and that’s what Putin and his armies are doing now. The Nazis dehumanized Jews, gypsies, socialists, homosexuals, on and on and on, basically anyone that they thought was undesirable, they declared as not being human, literally recognized as a disease, a corruption that needed to be eliminated — a disease that needed to be stomped out. That’s what the Nazis did in misrecognizing millions and millions of people.

It is a bitter irony that the Putin propaganda to dehumanize Ukrainians was to declare that they were Nazis. Putin and anyone else who says “oh, the Ukrainians are a bunch of neo-Nazis,” is propagating the absurdity that these human beings are not full human beings. Misrecognizing their humanity is saying they do not deserve to live; we must kill them.

Is this not how all wars are fought, or at least legitimized in the propaganda wars? You dehumanize the enemy. They must be destroyed. They must be eliminated. They are a disease. Whether you call it “denazification,” whether you call it “ethnic cleansing,” whatever you call it, it doesn’t matter the terms, the reality is you are MISrecognizing other human beings.

This is a social dynamic that happens on all levels of human society, not just on the level of interactions among nations. The dynamic of recognition versus misrecognition of other people happens on a very personal level when you misrecognized another human being as a human being, it permits you as an individual to commit atrocities against that other individual. People who commit crimes, whether it’s merely property crimes or personal violent crimes against another human being, is doing so because they don’t recognize the other human being as having the right to not be the victim of this criminal act or violent act that you are committing against them.

The rapist does not recognize the victim of the rape as deserving to not be raped. The murderer does not recognize the victim as someone who deserves to not be murdered. Even something as reasonably relatively benign as shoplifting is not recognizing the shop, the store, the shopkeeper, as not deserving to not be stolen from. Even something as innocuous as interrupting someone who is speaking, is not recognizing that other person as deserving of not being interrupted. It is basically saying when you interrupt someone who is speaking that, “oh, you don’t deserve to be heard. What I have to say is more important than what you’re saying right now, so I’m going to interrupt you.” It’s a misrecognition of that human being.

The point of all of this that I’m saying, and hopefully people are still listening at this point, is how much recognition is the very fabric of our social relations, from as simple as having a conversation with another person to wars. If you hit somebody, it’s because you don’t recognize them. You are MISrecognizing them and their rights as a human being. When you invade another country, you are misrecognizing the people of that country, not just the country — the people of that country. You are misrecognizing them as human beings. Misrecognition is the foundation of all atrocities, of all crime, of all immoral acts.

And you may ask. “Okay, well, this seems so obvious, let’s say I agree with you Doctor Giles that, oh yes, this sounds good. How then, if this is so obvious in your mind, do you explain why it is that this isn’t the central part of all moral discussions? All social discussions, all political discussions.” That’s a good question, because I do believe that it needs to be a central part of all of these discussions. Why has it not been? Granted, why has it not been recognized as such?

I conjecture two reasons. One is weirdly that the theory of recognition is a relatively recent invention or realization in philosophy. Hegel talked about it only about 200 years ago. Rousseau talked about it a little bit earlier, but in a kind of a different way and I’ll get into that in another episode about Rousseau’s recognition versus Hegel’s recognition versus later versions of recognition. And you say, “well, 200 years ago, that’s, that’s a long time ago.” Well, not in philosophy, weirdly.

It’s one of the idiosyncrasies of our field is that it can take generations for an idea to really gain traction. That’s not true of all ideas, don’t over interpret what I’m saying there. But this idea of recognition has only been on the scene relatively recently, whereas you look at morality itself, political philosophy itself, that has not just a 200 or 250 year history, but has a history going back 2,500 years. Plato, Aristotle, Master Kung. Many ancient philosophers are talking about political systems, are talking about moral systems. So you need to think about recognition as a latecomer to this whole conversation, and that conversation is entrenched in tradition.

Which segues to my second reason why I think recognition has not been central to the conversation, because the conversations about morality have been greatly deeply steeped, especially in the Western tradition, in systems of divine command ethics and in systems of rational necessity, I can’t get into it right now, but [one] of the oldest moral systems in the Western tradition is Aristotle’s, and Aristotle couched morality entirely in terms of rational decision making and in terms of (and I think this is a more important point than the rationality aspect) that it is a universal objective reality that there is one right moral answer for any situation.

So, it’s not open to interpretation, it’s just open to a rational understanding of what that one right answer is. That was combined in later centuries with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of morality as divine command ethics. God says this is what is right. This is what is wrong. So morality then, is a question of rationally understanding what it is that God said was right and God said is wrong. That has dominated the discussion of morality even to this day, even the very non-divine command ethics of utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham, who deliberately wanted to say, “I want a non-religious conception of morality,” he still couched it entirely in terms of a rational objective understanding: “This is the one right course of action.”

What does it have to do with recognition? Well, the problem with recognition being a latecomer into this discussion, where the positions are very firmly entrenched in an objective rational point of view, recognition is not anti-reason, not anti-objectivity, but it is very pro subjectivity in that it is taking into consideration social relations — relations between individuals, relations between groups, between governments and the people — and that creates a level of uncertainty and unpredictability and complexity that too many philosophers just don’t want to deal with.

Certainly non philosophers — people who don’t want to critically think — they really don’t want to think about that. “What do you mean? I have to take this person into account? No, this is right. This is wrong. They are that, therefore boom: they’re, they’re misrecognized.” That’s a very comforting level of pseudo-certainty. You pretend that you know it all. “Oh yeah, that person there, they are a this, there are that, therefore, they are objectively bad, objectively, not deserving of recognition. Simple. Let’s not even have a conversation about it.” Recognition is about having a conversation. Philosophy is about having a conversation.

I wish more philosophers would have this conversation about how important are social dynamics, the constellation of social relations among people that include recognition, that are dependent upon recognition, not upon reason, not upon some sort of objective divine command ethics. You can take God out of the equation, and it’s still the same structure of there is one truth.

Recognition is not a relativism in the bad sense. It’s a relativism in the good sense. A good sense of it depends upon the people involved. It depends upon the situation involved. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t basic principles. I’ve talked about and alluded to two basic principles before in this talk. Someone fleeing for their lives deserves consideration as a human being. That’s a basic principle. As a moral principle, a human being deserves to be treated as a human being. That’s a basic moral principle. Let’s start talking about how you apply [those].

In future podcasts episodes, I want to talk more about theory of recognition, introduce more people to the importance of recognition and recognition theory and not just in philosophy, but in our daily lives. I’ll talk about the history of recognition theory. I’ll talk about how it applies to various situations in various social institutions within human society. I look forward to that. And I look forward to your support for this podcast. I hope you will listen, that you will subscribe. It’s just what I want to do in terms of recognizing the need in the world to insert philosophy into our daily lives.

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