Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Concept of the "other"

I teach Sociology, as well as American history. Teaching an elective allows me the freedom to stretch my wings and look at standard history from different angles and through different prisms. I have become enchanted with the concept of “the other.” “The other” is anyone who is not like you. We all create a concept of the “the other” in our heads. When we group ourselves with like-minded people, whether based on performed race, economic status, performed gender, or countless other divisions, we band together because of some form of commonality. We find those whose values we share in some way. We join with others who reinforce our beliefs. Those who don’t share our beliefs are in one way “the other.” It is difficult for us to see the world through the eyes of “the other.” We assume that those we agree with view the world with the same eyes we do, those that don’t must not have anything in common with us. When we walk into a crowded room of people we don’t know, we look for someone that we assume is like us. It is a survival mechanism and quite natural. But it is also very base. By choosing others that we think will share our interests, we are pushing away those that don’t look like they will “get” us, hence we lump them up as “the other.” (As a point of clarification, in Sociology, we discuss the fact that we are all performers, acting out a role. We perform our gender to varying levels: hyper masculinity, as seen on football teams; hyper-femininity, as witnessed on the cheer or dance squads or in modeling; Eminem is a white man who performs black culture. President Obama has been derided as a black man who “acts” white. While culture is somewhat fluid, we must understand that we all “perform” or “act” out certain traits that we wish to personify to fit in to a group. As a white male, I perform to standards that are beyond my control as a father, teacher, role model, and husband.)

When I am teaching the concept of the development of racism to a predominantly Caucasian student base, I explain the difficulty in doing cruel things to someone that I may see as a potential mate, sister, daughter, mother, etc. When I look in the mirror, or at a family portrait, is this someone that could ever be a part of that? If yes, the bar is higher, and it is more difficult for me to minimize their feelings, to do them harm. If the answer is no, though, it is much easier to act without regard to them. They are the embodiment of whatever I am not. The Kansas City Star ran an article about slavery several years ago. In a part of that article, a historian said that if it hadn’t been for African slavery, the English colonists would have enslaved the Irish. I disagree from a sociological perspective. The Irish, with white skin, would not have faced the same brutality or lasted as long in bondage as did blacks. A good history teacher will take me to task on that and describe the conditions in Ireland at the time and the cruelty inflicted. Which will bring me to my next point: The concept of “the other” works best when you have a clear, visible, physiological/physical difference that can be exploited. It can be extrapolated to neighborhoods, class, religion, or any number of culturally created cleavages. Once these cleavages have been identified, they are often exploited.

Building on Dr. Gregory Stanton’s “Eight Stages of Genocide”, we can see the development of "the other" is a process of dehumanization. As much as we attempt to say that we respect all equally, often we place our concept, our values, our norms on others, assuming that what we hold true must be universal. When others don’t share those views, we can marginalize the target. The process of dehumanization is a slippery slope, and we too often engage in it without realizing. It is our duty to help our students guard against this process in everyday life through examples from the past.

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