Don't Hate the Stranger

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Moving Past Hatred. Read other perspectives here.

Like many Hellenic polytheists, I find that there's quite a bit of wisdom ensconced in the Delphic maxims. Thinking on hatred, the one which comes to mind is, "If you are a stranger, act like one." In her book Longing for Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims, Alyson Szabo has this to say about strangers:

The idea of strangers is a central one in Greek culture. The Greeks referred to people either as 'friends,' 'enemies,' or 'strangers.' Everyone fit into these three categories, as far as they were concerned. A friend you trusted, an enemy you did not, and a stranger straggled toward the 'enemy' side but was not quite there yet. Strangers were treated with cautious courtesy, as they could easily slide into the 'enemy' category, but could also be a god in disguise.

The ease with which we express hatred may well be the result of losing our sense of what a stranger is. The concept has surfaced again, notably as "Dunbar's number," the theoretical maximum number of social relationships the human brain can maintain at one time; beyond that cap (which has been pegged at anywhere between 100 and 290, but most commonly 150), everyone is a stranger. While it's interesting to know that this ancient concept may have biological roots, Dunbar did not address the proper treatment of strangers, which has drifted a long way since they were offered the opportunity to wash and eat before they were even asked about their business. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to defuse issues of conflict is to revive that concept of the stranger, someone who is neither friend nor enemy.

Without the idea of the stranger clear in our collective minds, those we do not know must be categorized as friends or enemies. If we are to presume Dunbar's concept about our capacity for close relationships as true, there are only so many people we know well enough to really categorize them as either. Someone with a thousand Facebook friends doesn't really know most of those people even close to as well as I knew my best friend in high school. On the other hand, the victims of countless mass shootings and other terrorist attacks often never met their killer beforehand, and could not have done anything to rise to the level of "enemy." To ignore the concept of the stranger is to dilute the meaning of all other human relationships, distorting them nearly beyond recognition.

Hate is an emotion that comes from fanning the flames of anger and vengeance, betrayal and honor. Were those its only causes, hatred would be a rare, unpleasant turn that human relationships can always take. But hatred also can fester from sores caused by miscommunication, humiliation, and fear; these are causes which can thrive if there is no notion of "stranger" to act as buffer between friends and enemies. Osama bin Laden proved himself to be an enemy by his actions, despite the fact that his name was unknown to most Americans on September 10, 2001. But out of fear, many Americans identified more enemies: Muslims, Sikhs, dark-skinned men with beards, anyone who spoke Arabic. Those people might have remained as strangers, if such an idea were the cultural norm.

Online, it's not difficult to find examples of trolls attacking strangers as if they were enemies, or conversations that escalate into arguments because the participants presumed friendship when only the stranger relationship existed. Strangers cannot be trusted, but to attack one is to make an enemy. Enemies, in their own way, can be trusted, and are much less likely ever to become friends than strangers are.

One thing it is safe to assume about a stranger is an unfamiliarity with one's own beliefs and customs. Since this is expected of a stranger, we do not assume the worst when a cultural norm is broken. I might put your name in the wrong order, or offer to shake hands when I should have bowed, or referred to you by an incorrect pronoun, or offered you a food that is forbidden to those of your faith, or commit any number of heinous acts out of ignorance. An enemy might do something awful on purpose, but a stranger is oblivious. It takes communication—and sometimes, a lot more of it than one might expect—to understand those boundaries. If we only define people as friends and enemies, there is no opportunity to learn. There is only hate, as soon as one too many mistakes are made.

We are not going to like everybody we meet. That's okay. We don't have to be friends. But we certainly don't have to be enemies, either. Let's be proper strangers, and give each other a chance for something better.