I have honestly never seen more venomous attacks than currently distinguish American discourse, and the Other is often the target.
So who or what is the Other?
I don’t claim deep academic grounding in this philosophical concept, but it is very familiar in both literature and history. It is actually a very simple idea. There is the self, and that which is not the self is the Other.
The Other pertains to not only individual perception but also group perception. There is “me and you,” and there is “us and them.” The latter and the way it implies hostility is very high profile all over the world right now.
Perhaps humanity has always “othered” by identifying that which is unfamiliar and thus a threat in some way. The tendency begins early, as in children who bully, and it can manifest within families. Anyone who is “different” by virtue of looks, interests, sexual preference, or intelligence within a family can become the Other. Perhaps it goes without saying that to be othered is to be devalued.
The identification of the Other in group dynamics often leads to violence. It may have begun in the most primitive times when competitors for wild game were identified as the Other. Since then, the concept has activated with regard to other tribes, religions, races, and nationalities.
Defining ways in which the Other may be disdained enables a dominant group to justify whatever treatment it imagines to be in its self-interest. For example, in New Mexico, killing Native Americans, taking their land, and destroying their spirituality was legitimized by the belief that they and their way of life were inferior to the Europeans and their culture. Very handy.
The really frightening side of othering is the fact that it so often advances by dehumanizing the focus of attention. Mistreatment is justified in the minds of some by choosing to believe that the victims are not really people like you and me, that they don’t have feelings or experience life in the same ways. As a result there is nothing about them that creates empathy or inspires respect or compassion. In this era, they may be mercilessly attacked not only in organized ways but also by every individual with a smart phone or the ability to churn Internet diatribes.
How ironic that othering should endure, even intensify, in the great “melting pot” that is the United States. Our founding ideals implied that othering would not survive here. All were supposed to be welcome in a land where opportunity would advance equality. And couldn’t it be assumed that, through intermarriage among immigrants and also the indigenous people, we would eventually achieve a blessed, peaceful homogeneity?
Apparently not. We have become ever more creative in our ways of discriminating in a country where the ongoing immigration of differences is enormously irritating to some. I dare say that not one of us is free of guilt in this matter. Once a whole group is identified as Other, it may also be marginalized and then blamed for the social burden it becomes. To ascend to a position of prominence from such a group is rare and risky.
This has never been more apparent than in the way that President Barack Obama’s election, twice, has brought out the nation’s dark side. This does not mean that everyone who criticizes President Obama or is not of his political party is racist. However some really are, and among them the history of blacks as slaves is way too recent for comfort.
They are additionally horrified by the fact that Obama is the son of a white woman and a black African. For those people who are racist, the Other doesn’t get much worse than this. After all, it was only as a result of a 1967 Supreme Court decision that all states eventually retired laws that prohibited interracial marriage. In the year 2000, Alabama was the last state to do so.
As a nation we have had many troubled experiences with the concept of the Other, but this current political one has been exceptionally traumatic. A different one looms, however, that may be even worse. That is the possibility that Hillary Clinton will be elected president in 2016.
Such an event would challenge a premise eons old. Way back in the beginning of human history, men established the male as the absolute human type and the female as its inferior. There is probably not a female in the entire world who doesn’t understand what this means. A whole lot of othering may have gone on throughout time, but this is the universal one, the enduring one. We’re talking about the Big Other.
If a woman is elected leader of arguably the most powerful nation on earth, it will be a major turning point in history as we have known it. The attacks that President Obama and his family have been subjected to may seem slight when compared to the waves of wrath that could continually break against White House walls. That is, unless . . . , and that conjunction is followed by the naming of something that has never happened before, something that could indeed change the world for the better.
But let me pause here. The Other alone is a very big concept worthy of much thought, including by me. I need more time with it before I go on, but that will be soon.