Othering: The Real Problem We Have in This Country

othering concept - one black rubber duck among many yellow rubber ducks

“WE HAVE A PROBLEM IN THIS COUNTRY. It’s called Muslims.” These were the words a Donald Trump supporter uttered at a New Hampshire rally late last week.

What do a 9/11 hijacker and that guy at Trump’s rally have in common? A process of reduction that distorts reality, and a mental foundation for everything from scornful glances to discriminatory practices to murder. It’s called othering.

Othering is what reduces Muslims to terrorists, Americans to infidels, immigrants to criminals, women to bitches, men to pigs; it’s what reduced Native Americans to savages and Africans to slaves and slaves to 3/5th human beings (when they were “granted” that much).

Othering dehumanizes. What does that mean? Maybe we can’t expect to nail down what it means to be human here. But perhaps we can agree that it involves being lots of things at once. Maybe we can go a step further and say it’s also the potential to be things we’re not yet. An Other is not complex; an Other is that thing you’re not and you don’t want to be, distilled in a body. An Other doesn’t have potential; an Other is fixed, an abstract concept made concrete – usually, as something bad.

Othering does more than fix the Other; it fixes the one who others in his or her own mind as well, as what the Other is not – usually, something good. Where there is an “other,” there is a “self”; in turn, where there’s a “them,” there’s an “us.” When we break the world up into teams, we tend to fix our position on the right team.

There are groups in this world. Groups have meaning. They reflect shared experiences of privilege or marginalization; they reflect experience under the same laws and cultural norms and institutional practices and societal taboos. Groups tell us something about the human beings within them. But not everything – a group is comprised of individuals; it doesn’t constitute them.

Othering is a temptation. Not only is there no caution against othering, but we’re aggressively compelled to indulge in it – by fundamentalist religion, by nationalism, by American exceptionalism, by positions of privilege. The extension of care, the exercise of judgment, and the making of decisions can already be complicated. When we’re confronted by a complex individual entangled in a constellation of values and messages and experiences and all that has come before, both projecting herself and being projected into what has not yet been — those processes get even messier. Othering makes feeling and judging and deciding easier, cleaner. The constellation and the individual within it and the potential disappear, and we’re left with an anonymous player on the wrong team to despise, condemn, and decide against.

Othering is a violent action of the human mind that sunders the bond between person and person. This can lead, and has led, individuals to hate, discriminate against, harass, beat, and murder others. This can lead, and has led, to the adoption of laws and policies that marginalize, enslave, and murder members of the wrong team en masse. It all starts with the sundering.

Othering holds danger for the one who others as well. If we are an “us,” distinguished from a “them,” we’ve already determined the rightness of our team. Given the desire for security within our own fixed, favorable position, we’re unlikely to critically examine the rules by which our team plays or the maneuvers in its playbook. Judging oneself and one’s “we” takes reflection, humility, and courage. By identifying ourselves and our “we” as not the Other and not “them,” the judging is already done. We can relax and experience a pride uncomplicated by unsavory truths.

Othering forsakes reality, sunders humanity, and destroys lives.

What do a World Trade Center worker who died for being American and a Chapel Hill student who died for being Muslim have in common? They were both somebody’s Other. And their deaths are equally catastrophic.

We have a big problem in this country, and in this world. It’s called othering.