Molnar (2012). Responsibility as the Welcoming of Difference: Thoughts on Levinas and a Teacher’s Experience.

Molnar, T. (2012). Responsibility as the Welcoming of Difference: Thoughts on Levinas and a Teacher’s Experience. In Education, 18(1). Retrieved from

“Attention to such relationship is important, but perhaps especially so in contexts typified by ethno-cultural difference where the need for anti-racist and social justice work exists, yet where some educators may be reluctant or unconvinced about the necessity to examine their perspectives and take action.” (p 38)

“As St. Denis (2009) points out, the need for a critical anti-racist education and the involvement of non-Aboriginal educators is vital, yet educators may eschew such work or hamper the process in a variety of ways.” (p 39)

“There is another challenge that emerges as well, for in attempting to benefit particular groups through social justice and anti-racist activities, there remains the need, as Biesta (2003) suggests, for safeguarding the uniqueness of others — where individuals are not seen only as a particular instance of something more general.” (p 39)

“I am suggesting that we as educators consider responsibility as a welcoming of difference that has a particular ‘language’ or ‘vocabulary’ which we ‘speak’ and which ‘speaks us.'” (p 39)

“… one is ultimately left to formulate one’s thoughts concerning experience, and is not provided with precise steps or rules regarding morals and ethics or responsibility.” (p 40)

“For Levinas, as Hutchens (2004) notes, being ethical goes beyond a place where ‘everything must be known, understood, synthesized, analyzed, utilized; if something cannot be grasped by the rationalistic mind, then it is either extraneous or portentous’ (p. 14). Ermine (2007) might identify this as the ‘brick wall of a deeply embedded belief and practice of Western universality’ that is typified by ‘the dissemination of a singular world consciousness, a monoculture with a claim to one model of humanity and one model of society (p. 198).’ (p 40)

“Levinas inverts the notion that ‘if we can know who we are we will then know how to be responsible’ (Todd, 2003, p. 2), and instead offers that our subjectivity and ethical reality emerge in the presence of others and so are already indebted to them. … one has to remain aware that Levinas’s focus is on the face-to-face meeting of individuals.” (p 40)

“… encounters in conversation with other human beings are a welcoming of difference, an act that is inherently ethical.” (p 41)

“There is perhaps with Levinas a language that originates in the expression of the non-verbal
commands found in the face-to-face2 relationship with another person; commands in which
the presence of another insists that no harm is done to them, and in which the other person is
always more than and other than what they are thought to be (Levinas, 2000). … exists
the encounter with the human presence of others, where welcoming and communication are
already present.” (p 41)

“Drawing from Levinas (2000), Todd (2003) and Derrida (1999), I offer that this first language involves an _interruption_ of self by the difference of others, where one’s solidarity and sameness is shaken and undermined in encounters with others; _vulnerability_, where the self is already in transformation in response to infinite difference, independence, and moral ascendancy of others; and, _hospitality_, where difference is visited upon the self and is accommodated even as one struggles to retain one’s place, role, or identity. Finally, there is one’s _learning from the other_ where the difference encountered teaches the self. If we as educators follow Levinas, these realities are significant realities that form our responsibility to others.” (p 41)

[Faith is the pseudonym assigned to the participant-teacher in Molnar’s article. –oki]

“Faith’s words seem to substantiate the notion of responsibility as a welcoming of the difference of others. Here, interruption by the difference she encounters awakens her to her ‘suburban privileged white experience’…” (p 42)

“In being interrupted, she can witness her vulnerability to others, where she enacts her responsibility in her encounter with difference.” (p 43)

“Faith’s words seem to convey a sense of the vulnerability found in welcoming. She was not merely with students — together yet basically unaffected and unquestioning — but she was also open to them, vulnerable to the difference she encountered and what that demanded of her. Her vulnerability seemed to involve moments where ‘to welcome the Other is to put into question [her] freedom’ (Levinas, 1961, p. 85) where she encountered choices that were ‘incumbent upon [her] without any escape possible (Levinas, 1981, p. 13).'” (p 43)

[Brackets above in original. –oki]

“In welcoming, she finds herself welcomed, ‘sponsored in,’ to local First Nations social-cultural activities such as powwows, feasts, funerals, and round dances and this leaves Faith with a desire to belong but also brings further lessons …” (p 44)

“… she is a teacher inviting others in to her teaching context, yet is a stranger or guest in the broader landscape of history, culture, and place of those she welcomes. There is an association with others and their beliefs, values, and experience where [page break] she might find inclusion but never belonging.” (p 44-45)

“This speaking involves a sophisticated and contextually unique understanding and enactment of responsibility that, according to Todd (2003), involves a search for the ‘capacity for a relationality not premised on control or coercion… [or] on denying or repudiating the student’s needs’ (p. 27).” (p 45)

[Brackets above in original. –oki]

“… one can think of Faith’s experience of responsibility as an instance where she speaks the language of welcoming and that an important aspect of this is her attentiveness to the difference of others. Such attentiveness takes one beyond merely relying on rules, regulations, guidelines or even protocols which, though needed, will be insufficient guides to fulfilling one’s responsibilities. The need to attend to the authentic relationship of human beings exists in responsibility and responsibility is not merely consigned to following one’s duty or role …” (p 45)

“… a position from which to challenge the hegemony of contemporary Western perspectives on what is normative and ethical — a hegemony of universalism (Ermine, 2007) complicit in racist and oppressive practices.” (p 45)

“Finally, while ethicists such as Ermine argue for the need for the negotiation of an ‘ethical space of engagement’ among communities, nations, and groups, one can ask what prompts people or provokes them to actually stand on the edge of this space, to remain there, to deal with the ambiguity and challenge this space creates, where they are ‘divided by the void and flux of their cultural distance’ (Ermine, 2007, p. 24). There are powerful arguments that exist in advocating for educators’ involvement in anti-racist and social justice undertakings, yet at the core of these exists how responsibility is understood and enacted in face-to-face interactions.” (p 46)

“Approaching responsibility as a welcoming helps to fashion further argument against the stereotyping and diminishment of others.” (p 46)

“What the notion of welcoming suggests to us as human beings and in our work as educators is that in whatever venues we operate or where ever we focus our energies, we have already been called to action on behalf of others and all already responsible.” (p 46)

Selected References

  • Biesta, G. (2003). Learning from Levinas: A response. Studies in Philosophy and Education,
    22, 61-68.
  • Derrida, J. (1999). Adieu to Emmaneul Levinas (P.-A. Brault & M. Nass, Trans.). Stanford:
    Stanford University Press.
  • Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193-203.
  • Hutchens, B. (2004). Levinas: A guide for the perplexed. London: Continuum.
  • Levinas, E. (1961). Totality and infinity. Pittsburgh: Dusquense.
  • Levinas, E. (1981). Otherwise than being: Or beyond essence (A. Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh:
  • Levinas, E. (2000). God, death and time (B. Bergo, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University
  • St. Denis, V. (2009). Acknowledging the past and present — Aboriginal education,
    “Redefining Educational Problems and Solutions”. In V. St. Denis, J. Silver, B. Ireland,
    P. George (Ningwakwe) & R. Bouvier (Eds.), Reclaiming the learning spirit: Learning
    from our experience (Roundtable Report 2008) (pp. 13-34). Saskatoon: University of
    Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre (Saskatoon)
  • Todd, S. (2003). Learning from the other: Levinas, psychoanalysis, and ethical possibilities
    in education. Albany: State University of New York.

Selected Footnote

  1. “‘The face may be a real part of the human body available to be encountered, seen and
    experienced; but for Levinas face is before the alterity that presents itself to me, and as such
    face lies outside and beyond what can be seen or experienced’ (Davis, 1996, p. 135). The
    concept of ‘face’ is important for Levinas for when we encounter the face of the Other, the
    Other’s face looks back at me as both witness and judge. The face is more than physical,
    referring to the uncontainable uniqueness, difference and freedom found in the reality of
    another person.” (p 48)
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