Martin Buber on Treating One Another Better


Chloe Mayne looks at one of the most striking works by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

How can we adjust the way that we interact with the world in order to value it in its own wholeness? This is one of the fundamental questions put forward by Jewish author, scholar, political activist and philosopher Martin Buber (pictured, above) in his seminal 1923 text I And Thou. Almost a century on, its message is ever-relevant.

At the core of Buber’s thought is relation. He describes our attitude toward and interaction with the world around us as being twofold, due to the duality of the ‘primary words’ with which we approach and address it – whether we realise we are making this classification or not. The primary words are not singular, but combinations; the first being I-Thou, the other I/It-He-She. This might look a little complicated at first glance, but its heart is actually in its simplicity.

When we approach another being as It-He-She, we see that thing as a means to an end. For example, when we go to the library and have our books checked out by the figure behind the front desk, we usually see that person as the person that checks our books out rather than as Jason who clocks off at five and is planning to make lasagna for dinner and who’s a little tired today, because his toddler suffered bad dreams the night previous. Seeing people as It involves a degree of simultaneous simplification and objectification that affects the way we treat them. While approaching another being as I/It isn’t always such a terrible act – indeed, sometimes it’s just necessary to get out of the supermarket without engaging in a ten-minute discussion at the register – on a greater scale this distancing is often at the root of oppression. When approaching another as It we can’t honestly relate to or appreciate the wholeness of another.

What might not be so obvious is that when the way we decide to approach others changes (as Thou versus as It-He-She), the I also changes. I is malleable, shaped and proportioned by the way in which we choose to use it. When dealing with others as I-It, we simplify ourselves as well as those to whom we direct ourselves toward.IMG_2325 Cropped (1) Cropped

When we approach another being as Thou, on the other hand, we have no thing for our object. We view the components of the world around us as autonomous subjects. It’s worth noting that the German-to-English translation of Thou is archaic; the original is du, a form of address in German usually reserved for friends and family. It intimates the sense of, or desire for, mutual growing and flourishing contained within the relationship, even if such an attitude isn’t always returned our way.  In recognising and making a conscious effort to move toward the more frequent use of Thou, we open our capacity for empathy and respect. “Primary words are spoken from the being,” says Buber. “The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being”. 

While Buber’s writing comes from within his faith-based world of Judaism, I don’t think it’s difficult to reposition his thought in order to encompass the whole spectrum of human difference. By labelling and casting off an individual or a segment of society as ‘woman’, ‘man’, ‘trans’, ‘refugee’, or ‘bogan’, for example, we drastically simplify the complexities and individualities inherent within that group or being. We take a one-dimensional shard from a deeply entangled entity and, in many cases, overmagnify it. It’s an odd solipsism that denies the subjectivity outside of ourselves, forming groups defined by function and establishing the powerful and often discriminatory bar of normality. If you really squint your brain, this can even be extended beyond the human to the way we speak of an ‘animal’ or a ‘forest’ (though we can pick that thought back up on another occasion).

What’s required to improve the destructive cycle that can arise with an I-It approach is an assessment and an overhaul of the ways that we relate to one another. That may sound drastic, but the most refreshing thing about Buber’s thought is that enacting such a change begins in the tiniest, tucked-away corners of our lives.

Of course, it isn’t possible to relate to the world as Thou all of the time, nor does Buber expect us to do so. Rather, he asks us to make ourselves aware of this often subconscious delineation and, in doing so, perhaps re-evaluate or rebalance the ways in which we make Thou/It distinctions. In viewing other beings as entities with a complexity and wholeness equivalent to that of our own, de-vilifying the ‘other’, we ought to be able to foster a greater sense of empathy which, in so many cases of discrimination, seems to be missing.

To read more about Buber and his work, check out his Stanford page.

Chloe Mayne


Words (and stick people) by Chloe Mayne.