Othering

This reflection was originally posted on December 2, 2015. 

Hi. Given San Bernardino and Savannah, let’s talk about othering.

Othering, for those of you who may not be familiar with the term, is not too far from what it sounds like. It is the act (or consequence) of separating people into an “us” and a “them”—drawing a distinction that forms the basis of that value judgment. It’s a broader term that catches such undesirables as racism or sexism but also concerns other more amorphous distinctions, potentially based on appearance but also belief systems, religious or otherwise.

These categorizations, if they are used as value-neutral, can be effective shorthand in situations where a significant amount of knowledge bound up with cultural norms should be communicated quickly. (For example: “Oh, she’s an MIT grad. We should definitely interview her.”) However, as perhaps evidenced by my previous paragraph, things can go south very quickly if you’re not vigilant. (For example: “Oh, he’s a Boston College grad. I wouldn’t hire one of those if I could do it for free.”) In fact, it’s usually easier to go down the rabbit hole of othering than to carefully understand whether your value judgment is on a solid foundation or not.

Othering manifests in subtle ways in the world, but its most visible manifestation is in the realm of bullying. It is interesting that we care so much about it when applied to children but have not endeavored to assess what it means in the context of adults trying to advance by using fear and implicitly encouraging unthinking judgments. (“Other adults who are too sensitive need to grow a pair.”)

American culture is full of subtle encouragements of this line of thinking. Our legal system is fundamentally adversarial, as a point of pride. Our daily life metaphors are sports-based, and our sports metaphors are war-based. Even neutral fields that are trend-reliant, such as fashion, rely on this careful and charged sorting into categories. And to some extent, struggles against other people have been an integral part of the human experience as far back as humans go. We’re wired to be apprehensive of people outside our inner circle. It’s what has allowed us to survive up to now, but has grievous implications today.

“But what’s the problem?” you may say. “Obviously I don’t think that people who wear green shirts instead of blue shirts are inherently inferior. I’m not an insane person; any typical adult should be able to figure that one out.” And this is a perfectly understandable response. But there are some problems with it, including the two here:

1) If you root for a sports team, you already apply this logic in specific contexts. And perhaps you are really singularly focused on your own team to the exclusion of others, but most sports watchers don’t work like that. As a Cleveland native, I can, on command, have incredibly strong negative opinions about people from Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Miami, New York, Boston, and so on. Not just sports teams, but residents. Reasons are given to justify why the other team not only can lose, but SHOULD lose. Rivalries become incredibly heated. And even if you think you can bring yourself to rise above such things, there are many people who cannot separate themselves from it, and many more who probably could but do notby choice.

2) Regardless of the subset of people who may be mentally unequipped to comprehend this moral difference, it doesn’t take a significant break from rationality to illustrate how this can get warped. As anybody I went to law school with could tell you in an instant, people cannot typically, as individuals, be called rational, even when they have near-perfect information (which is rarely the case to begin with). The tough-on-crime line is to cut budgets by removing “luxuries” such as prison programming and post-release support networks and then shrug when said people, without the means available to them to start their lives over, end up as recidivists, even though housing and guarding people who might otherwise have landed on their feet likely costs far more than the programming does. (An estimate is that for the average of $1500 per inmate per year that it costs to educate inmates, about $9500 per inmate per year is saved from the cost of reincarcerating recidivists.) What’s the reasoning? You’ve used your shot—you’ve become a Bad Person incapable of functioning in modern society and can never regain that status for the rest of your life. (Consider that repeat offender statutes are often literally called “three-strikes” laws…an example of othering both directly and through sports metaphor, which helps to make it more palatable.)

Do we know why somebody opened fire in a facility for people with developmental disabilities? Do we know why somebody opened fire in a crowded movie theater? Do we know why somebody opened fire in an elementary school? Do we know why somebody opened fire at a health clinic? Do we know why somebody opened fire on an unarmed teenager (or child, if we’re talking about Cleveland)?

While I cannot go inside their heads, I can posit that the urge to train a deadly weapon on a fellow human being is driven, whether by hate or by fear, by a firm belief in the othering of those on the wrong end of the barrel. And on the flipside, the selective cry of “mental illness” for white shooters in this country speaks volumes about the fact that there is no need for othering Black shooters; only white shooters need to be othered in order to make the rest of us feel safe enough that we can write the event off and move on without confronting the underlying issues. We are personally wounded; we are behind the trigger.

I don’t expect, if you’re still reading this, that you will be able to remove all traces of othering from your life. It is, for better or for worse, inherently linked to connecting with people. And you know I’m not going to start rooting for the University of Michigan anytime soon. However: all it takes to make the world a little more humane is to recognize when you are making a value judgment about another person based on reasons that you may not have fully explored. Why is the teenager in Iraq frustrated with the United States? Why has the mother of two been on welfare for two years? Why does the Yankees fan root for the Yankees? Why did that asshole cut you off on your commute home?

Is it because they are morally bankrupt? Possibly. But how many people you know intimately well are sociopaths? If the answer is less than 50%, shouldn’t there be another plausible explanation for each of these people? Is that an explanation you’ve considered and worked through?

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