Who is this “Other?” Only one of the most common characters in fiction–and unfortunately, in life.
I first heard the term “Other” in a college literature course, although the concept was already familiar. In fiction, The Other is a character who is seen as being fundamentally different from the dominant group, destined to remain separate and unaccepted.
In life, Othering happens when we encounter someone new and begin taking stock of how they differ from us. It may seem relatively harmless, but when we don’t look beyond our differences, we hold The Other at a distance. This sets us up for judging them as somehow lesser than us and, yes, for allowing them to be treated accordingly.
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You are The Other
Why do we have this tendency?
I don’t know, bad habit? Or it could be that Othering is a leftover from prehistoric times. (Othering as vestigial human behavior?) In those old, old days, everyone’s survival came with a daily question mark, so it might have seemed necessary to draw loved ones near and push away outsiders. Maybe, instead, Othering has its roots in self-identification. “I define myself by who I am not.” Except, wouldn’t it be better to define ourselves by who we are? “I am my beliefs and interests and goals, my passions and loves. I am how I behave.”
Othering happens everywhere; none of us are immune to it or its effects. I have Othered and I’ve been Othered.
When I was younger–again, college-age–I worked in a store on Philadelphia’s South Street. I’d been offered the job by the store owner while shopping with friends and I accepted, figuring I’d like it. I did. I had fun with my coworkers, bought clothes with my discount, and generally enjoyed being part of the South Street peoplescape. Yet, once the novelty wore off, I decided the late nights and long drive home weren’t worth the trouble.
At the end of one of my last nights of work, I was driving down a back street with my doors locked and favorite CD playing. I stopped at an intersection and, there on the opposite corner, stood a girl about my age. She was alone and looked uncomfortable, maybe even a little scared. Her dress and demeanor suggested she was a prostitute. I was young and fairly naive, but even I could see that much.
Our eyes locked and, almost instantly, I labeled her Other. Her choices–or those made for her–had brought her to this street in the middle of the night, waiting to be picked up by a stranger. I, on the contrary, was leaving a job I’d accepted because it was fun and not because I needed the money. I was in my own car, on my way to my own apartment–a place where I’d be surrounded by roommates and friends, a place where I was pursuing a degree that would broaden my opportunities.
I could have closed my mind to this girl after labeling her Other. If I’d thought something along the lines of, “maybe she deserves it”–a phrase that sends chills down my spine–it would have been easy to keep her safely ensconced in her Otherness. Her welfare would have quickly dropped out of my concern.
Instead, I looked beyond her differences. I saw myself. I recognized that if I’d been born into alternate circumstances, with another set of choices, I might have been the one standing alone on the street, scared and vulnerable.
Image via Unsplash/Molly Porter
So, in those few, long seconds at the stop sign, I hesitated. I wanted to roll down my window and ask this girl if she needed a ride. I wanted to take her in like a lost puppy. I wanted to show her there were other choices. I didn’t do any of these things. The girl looked away and I drove on. I can only wonder what happened to her that night or throughout any of the nights that followed.
What if I could return to that moment? Would I help?
I wish I could vow, up and down, that I would, but I can’t. That night, I chose my own safety over another’s. I acted–or rather, failed to act–based on fear. My worry was that if I reached out to this girl, some of the dangers enveloping her life might latch onto me. This may have been true. Let’s face it, fear is there to protect us.
Yet fear can also be a danger. Choices made in fear–or anger or hatred or any negative emotion–aren’t usually our best. On that night, those years ago, fear left me helpless. I really, truly felt for that girl, yet I did nothing. What if, instead of being distracted by my fear, I’d opened my eyes to other options? Maybe I could have contacted someone, sought additional help. One act and this girl’s life might have changed forever.
Othering happens–every day, all around us. Every child who has ever been bullied suffered because he or she was labeled Other by the victimizing person or group. Othering is at the heart of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, xenophobia, discrimination against the ill or disabled, etc. Othering can be taken to horrific extremes. Think of humans’ worst crimes against humanity: genocide, eradication of native peoples during colonization, slavery, fanatical terrorism, wars, mass rape, religious persecution. None of these could have happened without dominant groups viewing Others as lesser.
We are all part of the picture
The world is enormous and so are its problems. It’s overwhelming–I feel that, too. There isn’t an easy, all-encompassing answer as to how we should reach out, when so many are in need. Still, if we really want to make a change, I guess we do what we can, when we can. Even small acts are able to add up to something big.
For instance, when we encounter someone new–whether directly or indirectly–maybe rather than giving in to the impulse to distance ourselves, we could make the effort to look beyond their differences. What if we unother those Others? We might recognize that beyond their different features or skin color or religion or age or sexual preferences or political views, they share our basic needs–for food and water, shelter and clothing–as well as our deeper needs–for acceptance and empowerment, companionship and love. Empathy on its own won’t change the world, but it’s a really good place to start.
What if that paralyzing fear shows up? Instead of letting it control us, maybe we could push past it. Working together–as a team–might get us there. I’m not suggesting we go around leaping into harm’s way, yet standing aside while bad things happen isn’t working very well for our society, either. We should never forget there is safety–and power–in numbers, enough of each to drive back fear.
We are living in a volatile time, an important time, a future-changing time. Maybe we ought to take a hard, clear look at this Othering thing. It’s possible that, one by one, we could do something about it. Wouldn’t it be some kind of wonderful to live in a world where people recognized themselves in every Other–a world where we could count on the kindness of strangers when we needed it most?