Earlier this summer, I sat down with Dr. Ilana Maymind, a lecturer for the religious studies department at Chapman University, who recently published book called, “Exile and Otherness: The Ethics of Shinran and Maimonides.” We discussed her thoughts on the issues titled in her book and how they relate to current social justice movements and social media.
Originally from Eastern Europe, Maymind is a recent transplant to California from the Midwest and believes that everyone can relate to exile in some form. According to her book, humans have a tendency to exclude others or look at each other and find differences, but recognizing that we are all complex beings with multifaceted personalities or experiences of exile can help us learn from each other.
KB: You mentioned that writing this book resonated with you because you come from a different culture, what else did writing this book mean to you? And what do you hope other people will get from it?
IM: The main issue that really interested me and what I think will interest others was looking at differences without preconceived notions, appreciating the differences, [and] appreciating the idea that there is otherness in everyone. We can look at someone and say that this person fits perfectly in a society, but then we can look at someone else and they look different or speak with an accent or have a different last name, and we kind of disregard them. I remember when I came to this country and I would start speaking, I would notice that people’s facial expressions would change because I don’t sound exactly the same. [It was] like what I was saying wasn’t relevant. It was really interesting, I would say ‘hello’ and the person would say ‘where are you from.’ It was so interesting, like how do [they] know from hello that I am from somewhere else? So that’s what got me initially interested, and when I was reading those two thinkers the idea that they were exiled and that exile doesn’t necessarily mean being exiled from the country. It means you might be exiled from your environment or you might exile from your family or all kinds of issues and I related it back to my first experience. I wasn’t born here, I came to this country and I was a transplant, but I was a part of this culture too because there were other people here too already. When you teach, you really realize how many students are in exile. They aren’t necessarily from a different culture, but they might be in exile from their family, they might be in exile from their friends or girlfriends or boyfriends and they’re trying to figure out how to behave. It’s actually more universal in a sense than just saying I’m from a different country, it might be more than that.
KB: Earlier you talked about otherness and people “othering” each other, do you think, especially with everything going on in the world right now in terms of social justice movements, such as the Black Lives Matter Movement, do you see a lot of that happening or do you see crossover from what you talk about in your book?
IM: It’s interesting because when I started writing nothing was happening, even the refugee crisis was not there and I remember saying something like you never know at what point you can become a refugee. Then all of this happened and so much of this otherizing of people started taking place so much more and I can’t believe I was writing about it so many years ago. I am hopeful though. I’m really hopeful because something that really bothered me for a long time was the disregard [of] saying, ‘you are not like me’ or ‘I am not like you’ or ‘you don’t deserve’ [and that] will be fixed to some degree. It will take a long time, it’s not like it’s going to happen overnight. It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of soul searching. To me it’s always interesting when people say, ‘I’m not a racist, but’ or ‘I’m not an antisemite, but.’ I like this ‘but.’ What exactly is this ‘but’ that you are still trying to figure out? It’s going to take awhile and it’s going to take honest soul-searching because we can say all kinds of nice things, but actually changing our viewpoints and actually changing the way we relate to people takes work.
KB: What’s your take on social media and how big of a role it’s had to play in disseminating information and uniting people for these social justice movements?
IM: It’s actually quite problematic. I think it does have some good points where it animates our strengths, but it also unfortunately separates people. I wish I could say different. I wish I could say that it’s all a positive force, but I would be dishonest if I said so because I see a lot that is problematic. When you see the news that are making up facts, when we don’t get the full story, when people unfriend each other just because they cannot see the same way. We really have to work very closely on really listening, really paying attention, and again like I said, if we’re really coming to the table without those preconceived notions, without defining people as different, other, worse than us, below us, beneath us, whatever word you want to use. I don’t want to come to the stage, or social media, just to find someone who agrees with me. I want an open and honest dialogue. I see a lot of people putting each other down and unfriending or cursing each other or calling names and it’s very frustrating. So I don’t know if I can say if social media is only positive.
KB: Do you think that social media has effects on otherness and othering people?
IM: There is this kind of anonymity which is problematic. If we always talk and acknowledge who we are, and I am open and direct and I say, ‘I, Ilana, am thinking about this’ rather than sometimes hiding behind a social media screen or changing my name or not putting my image so I don’t know if it actually helps or not. Ideally, I think it could be a venue of openness where we are here and offering our views and we’re honest about it.
KB: Do you think that different forms of media such as tv and movies are viable forms to learn about things such as ethics and values in addition to academic sources?
IM: I think that actually popular culture has lots to offer. With my critical thinking training I like to, even if something is ‘dumb’, dumb can be very helpful too. We can look at it and say what’s wrong with this piece and see what we can learn from it. And there are some great pieces that actually make us think ‘wow this is really great. I hadn’t thought about this. There are powerful performances, powerful actors, and voices not afraid of tackling difficult issues.’ So I think there is a place for it. I don’t think that academia and academic learning should be just reduced to the canon, but I don’t think the canon should be replaced or put aside. I think they can be taught together and working with both is very important.
Looking at these issues from a creative industries standpoint, how do you as a CCI student have an opportunity to engage with these ideas? We’d love to hear from you, on subjects such as this, or other concepts and issues facing CCI in the world today. Submit blog ideas, projects, creative works, to firstname.lastname@example.org for an opportunity to be featured on The CCI Collective creative site.
And for more on Maymind’s thoughts and work, her book is currently available on Amazon and she teaches classes such as Intro to Judaism, Women and Religion, and New Religious Movements.