By Head Master Tim Bowden
In the first half of the twentieth century, a Jewish philosopher called Martin Buber wrote a book called I and Thou (you). This week at a Quad assembly, partly prompted by International Women’s Day, I attempted to explain and apply some of Buber’s insights to the context of our students. The following text is a version of that address.
Martin Buber argued that we engage with the world in one of two ways; these are ‘I-it’, and ‘I-you’. ‘I-it’ is when we engage with the world as an object to be used or experienced. Whether it is a view to look at, a pen to write with, or clothes to wear, these things around us are objects that we use and experience. Implicitly, in the ‘I-it’ engagement, the ‘I’ is more important than the ‘it’. ‘I-you’, on the other hand, is a different category. ‘I-you’ implies a relationship between persons. The ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are equally important and valuable and significant.
His key insight is that the person with whom we interact is not an object. That person does not exist for our sake, to be used and experienced for our benefit, or to be a means to our ‘my’. That person matters. Buber is reflecting a view of the world informed by the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which show us that every person is made in the image of God and, therefore, matters. Other people are not objects.
As we make our way through the world, we will come across people who use other people. They might use them as an entry point to a social group. They might use them as a way of advancing a career. They might use them for the benefits that they can get. We should be very cautious around people like that.
But we should heed the warning even more clearly, ‘Don’t become a person like that.’ Don’t become a person who treats other people like objects – as though they exist for our own benefit, and as though there is not within them the same richness and fragility of life, the same stories and hopes and dreams.
Last week, I raised the topic of how we show respect to our female peers from other schools. This week, in which we mark International Women’s Day, I want to take that topic a little bit further. In our world, in which visual communication is so prominent and in which pornography is so prevalent, it is very easy for men to objectify women.
‘Objectifying’ means treating someone as an object; in Buber’s language, it is taking an ‘I-you’ relationship, and making it an ‘I-it’ interaction. To objectify someone is to see them not as people in their own right, made in the image of God, but as an object to be gazed upon, fantasised about, or used.
And, tragically, we can slip very easily into objectifying the girls and women with whom we interact from day to day. We slip into an ‘I-it’ frame of thinking. We can start to make comments, in our heads or to those around us, about a person’s appearance or desirability. We can act as though that person is there to provide us with something to look at, something to cat-call, or something to mock, for the sake of the social acceptance of those around us.
This is not an exclusively male issue. All of us have the capacity to become users of other people. It happens when our agenda, or our interests, or our desires, override the fundamental recognition that the other person IS a person.
The trouble with ‘I-it’ interactions with other people is that it is out of step with reality. Other people are not objects. They don’t exist for our sake. And, if we treat them as though they are, we are setting ourselves up for a diminished future on multiple levels. We will hurt other people. Other people will learn to be guarded around us. Our capacity to form rich, satisfying, and meaningful relationships will wither.
Thoughts become actions, actions become habits, and habits become our character. We should be careful.
For over a hundred years Trinity Grammar School has educated boys in mind, body and spirit. Our mission is to provide a thoroughly Christian education for boys from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 12, imparting knowledge and understanding of the world we live in, and recognising the importance of spiritual qualities in every sphere of learning.
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