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Dehumanising cuts both ways

Last week I wrote on Facebook:

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As one commenter put it, that’s a lot of ‘likes’ for a non-life event! It’s lovely that people were so supportive – language learning is a hard slog and the triumphs are few and far between. And we Aussies love a bargain!

But behind my comment was a more serious issue: what it means to recognise the dignity of other human beings. What does the shopkeeper’s attempt to rip me off say about him, or me? What does my desire to be treated fairly say about me or my attitude towards him?

In this sort of situation, I doubt I am being viewed as a person. More likely, I’m being viewed as a rich westerner, as a full purse, as a bank. The goal is to get as much money out of me as possible, regardless of what it is I am purchasing. It’s not about interacting or fairness – it’s about exploitation. It’s profoundly dehumanising for me.

And yet, I find it very difficult to bargain. There are cultural factors tied up in this: Australians expect to pay according to the value of a product; a Tanzanian expectation is that those with more help those with less. And bargaining is a kind of confrontation that Australians are uncomfortable with. But the thing that makes me most uncomfortable is the knowledge that my people (‘westerners’) have been exploiting the African continent for centuries and that I have grown wealthy from that. However indirect the role I played, part of me thinks it’s fair for them to exploit me, to gain in this small-scale interaction, what has been stolen from them on a much larger scale.

But there’s another part of me that sees a chance for my own redemption here. At the back of my head, I suspect there’s a line of thought that says that allowing myself to be ‘exploited’ here (and let’s face it, I’m still buying something, so the exploitation is pretty meagre) means I can assuage my rich white person guilt. There’s still a pretty selfish motivation going on. I look like I’m giving back but I’m really just looking to make myself feel better.

However, behind the impulse to make myself feel better is a consciousness that exploitation has not only diminished the humanity of those I have exploited but also of myself. My people have treated Tanzanian and other African peoples as commodities, and that is profoundly evil.

It’s evil because it treats the image of God like it is a thing to be used rather than a person to be honoured.

It’s evil because it takes a being created for relationship and extracts all relational interactions.

It’s evil because it reduces agency when people are created to make right choices.

It’s also evil because the one doing the exploiting is failing to live as a responsible partner in caring for God’s creation. By falling vastly short of treating others as images of God, they undermine their own image-ness.

Dehumanisation is never only one way. It cuts both ways.

This  is why the notion that it’s fair to allow myself to be exploited is a completely false one. I do not give anything back in such an interaction. Instead, I again chip away at the other’s humanity, probably just for my own comfort. I enable the other to become the monster I so despise in myself. I make my own people’s sin the standard for relationships.

And yet, to insist that others do not exploit me where my people have exploited them smacks of hypocrisy. It’s very messy!

This is where bargaining is remarkably freeing. First, it means you have to have a conversation, to greet someone, look them in the eye and have a chat. That is, it introduces at least some semblance of relationship. Second, it is a collaborative process. Even though I am trying to reduce the price and the other is trying to keep it high, it is not an argument. Instead, it’s an attempt to come to an agreement. Third, there are cultural cues which signal what a fair price range is, and if these are not met, either party is able to walk away.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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