25. “Otherness”

Ch 25

Binary thinking – the problem of “otherness”

“Otherness” as a barrier to civilisation

Tom Lehrer’s “National Brotherhood Week”[i] skewers the problem of “otherness” with great accuracy:

“Oh, the white folks hate the black folks,
And the black folks hate the white folks.
To hate all but the right folks
Is an old established rule.”

“To hate all but the right folks” is indeed an old established rule, in fact it is buried in our core make up as humans.  The ability to classify things, to separate and regroup them, and to build abstract thinking on top of this, is a major feature which distinguishes us from other animals.

When we have classified ourselves, we have built elements of our own identity.  And others who differ from this identity are not “the right folks”.  There is something in us that rejects, or resents, or fears, “otherness”.  This may have had some survival value at some time, in helping us avoid the unknown.  But it is now a great enabler of much human conflict.

So, what most makes us human – the ability to classify – also makes us least humane – through the rejection of differently classified people.

Lehrer doesn’t confine his song to race.  He also targets wealth, class, and, of course, religion:

“Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.”

Religious conflicts pepper human history, more or less in direct proportion to the power that religions have in their societies.  They occur not only between, but also within religions, as sects compete for power and influence – the Sunni-Shi’a conflicts of today provide a good example of this.

But I called “otherness” an enabler of conflict, not a cause.  The underlying causes of these conflicts are power and/or greed.  The desire to have your word as the only word, their land as your land, their possessions as yours.

Our built in rejection of “otherness” allows the powerful to manipulate populations, to awaken resentment and hatred, often to the point of denying the humanity of the “others”.  “Otherness” does not cause conflicts, but it expands them, and makes them more bitter, as people become trapped in divisiveness.

In our recent history, the cult of individualism has clearly increased social separation and damaged social bonds.  A peculiar twist in the last 40 years has been the growth and development of “identity politics”.  Initially, it was about groups who were discriminated against (for example, blacks, women, non-heterosexuals) taking control of their own identities, and building power from that base.  This has been suborned at both political and economic levels, through the use of wedge issues to increase divisions between groups, and the use of highly targeted marketing and advertising, which encourages people to identify with (and consume in) narrow categories, as determined by the marketers.

There is a wonderful sequence of Doonesbury cartoons[iii], in which the American jock BD is captured by Phred, a Vietnamese soldier, in an area unknown to them both.  As they find their way out, they get to know a little about each other.  When Phred yearns for some of his mother’s beautifully cooked rice, BD reacts with, “Amazing…I didn’t know Commies had mothers”.

This shows, in a nutshell, how easily we allow ourselves to dehumanise others.  BD has had no concept at all of Phred as a person – he is purely a “gook”, the enemy.  The cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, gets a lot of laughs out of BD’s misconceptions about Phred.  But, being a true humanist, he also builds their relationship and friendship over many years – still playing with that underlying “gook/American jock” difference.

Civilisation as I define it includes getting over that problem of “otherness”.  I doubt that BD ever becomes truly civilised, but he certainly becomes more civilised as a result of being forced into a relationship with Phred – and learning about both his otherness and his sameness.

The cruel irony is that we humans are far more similar than we are different.  We share 99.9% of our genetic material with each other[iv].  Our differences are based on that 0.1% difference in genes, and we inflate the differences till we believe they really matter.   We believe that “others” are something less than ourselves.

We should be marvelling at the variety of culture, language and creativity that this tiny difference has enabled, rather than using it to denigrate and reject people.

Applied “otherness”

Racial and other stereotyping is one of the more effective ways we denigrate and reject people.  It usually has at least a kernel of truth in it, but not necessarily about a specific person, and not necessarily about the present.  A stereotype is defined as a “widely held, but fixed and oversimplified, idea”.  We all hold stereotypes – simplifying things is an essential way of coping with our complex world.  But it is the fixedness of stereotypes, and the use of them to denigrate rather than to celebrate others, that damages society.

A lot of Jews have big noses (just like me).  And a lot of Jews are successful in various forms of business such as movie-making and finance (unlike me).  It’s probably not too bad to make a joke about a Jewish nose (as long as we’re certain we are not taking advantage of a position of relative power to mock and belittle them, and are OK about someone else having a laugh at our pale skin, or our tight-arsed walking style[v]).  But to represent Jews as heartless moguls and Shylocks is to use stereotyping to denigrate or dismiss them.  We would be far better off celebrating their successful people, and engaging with them to see if there were things we could learn about their ways of doing business.

And we need to be just as cautious about positive stereotyping.  Because we know some nice Jews, and celebrate their success, we are not entitled to assume that all Jews are equally good and successful.  Unless we define goodness and success to include engagement in something close to, if not actually, genocide in Palestine[vi].

“Otherness” not only enables war between societies, it also underlies much conflict within societies.  Ghettoisation – the tendency for “like” to live near “like” – is a common, seemingly natural, behaviour.  It has both its benefits and its costs.  For immigrant communities, it helps maintain a sense of identity, but also delays true integration in a new society.  For the poor, it is often forced by property or rental prices, but may also help build a sense of community.  For the wealthy, it is enabled by property and rental prices, but reduces the need to engage with other groups.

Many songs have been written about the difficulty of “crossing the lines”, and people who do so can be ostracised, and even vilified.  Relationships across race, class, religion, or “natural” gender lines are often greeted with suspicion, even among those who would claim to be unprejudiced.  Like should stay like, and “normal” should stay with “normal”, apparently.

Some years back, my family moved from a multicultural suburb to live in a largely white suburb.  My 10-year old daughter, having been in a Maori immersion class in a multi-cultural school, was told by the headmaster, “I know you are disappointed that we don’t speak Maori here.  But you should be proud that you’re in a school where everybody is English, and everybody speaks English.”  I give Ruth great credit for forbearance – she didn’t tell him he was a complete dork, she just thought it.  I also give her great credit that she wouldn’t hesitate to say it today.

Ghettoisation helps to maintain identity, and it is very useful for that.  But it also leads to inward focus, rigidity, and vulnerability.  It is difference that gives life to communities.

Variety is the source (as well as the spice) of life

In natural ecology, the greatest development and variety of life is at the boundaries, where existing systems meet other systems, and struggle to adapt.  The systems maintain their “integrity” by this gradual process of adaptation, but they ARE changed by it[vii].  Life is adaptation, and adaptation can only come from exposure to otherness.  This is as true of human life as it is of other forms of life.

The wish to impose your words or beliefs or habits on others is either hubris or a death-wish, or, more likely, both.  If you wish to remake the other in your own image, you are trying to be a god – an evil god, but still a god.  If you wish all to be in your image, you are wishing for stasis and death.  Life thrives on variety, not sameness.

On the other hand, the wish to engage with others to share your differences, and either accept them or build something new from them, is a cornerstone – possibly THE cornerstone – of a civilised society.  Many of the world’s best people recognise this and work hard to make it happen.

The catch about engaging with difference is that, while some thrive on it, it is hard work for most of us.  That is, by and large, why it still represents a major cause of problems for humanity – because it is hard work.

But, if we are to be a truly civilised society, it is what we have to do.  Not deal with difference by rejecting it.  Not allowing the powerful to use otherness to foment resentment, hatred and war.

And not by brushing it under the carpet with politeness, or disguising it under the veneer of “tolerance” and “equal rights”.  Tolerance and equal rights are at best the first steps on a path to a truly civilised society, which celebrates otherness, and builds new possibilities on it.

Read on, about “What we can learn…”>>
Back to the Manifesto>>

[i] From “That Was The Year That Was”, Tom Lehrer, 1965

[ii] “Capitalism Must Die”, Stephanie McMillan, p196

[iii] “The Doonesbury Chronicles”, G. B. Trudeau, 1975

[iv] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-does-the-fact-that-w/

[v] See Eddie Murphy in “Beverley Hills Cop” (I think)

[vi] See for example http://www.thenation.com/article/israel-guilty-genocide-its-assault-gaza/

[vii] Thanks Betsan Martin for this observation