Saturday, 25 February 2017

Othering: What it is and why it matters

Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the 'other' and establishing one's own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.

When former CPC Cabinet Minister Tony Clement tweets like this:

He is using the term "illegals" to talk about people. Human beings. Sons, daughters, moms, dads... People. Just like you. Families. Just like your family. 

Othering is a linguistic and psychological strategy to make someone seem different from you. It is a technique employed when someone in a position of authority wants to make the majority forget that these are people being spoken about. 

Armies make up names for the enemy. "Jerry" "Huns" "Gooks" "Wops" "Krauts" "Nips" "Yanks"... Because it is a lot harder to kill a person with an individual identity, a personality, a family, a life story... And often, in wartime, that someone on the other side was more than likely just a kid, same as the kids in the army fighting them. Discipline would become a problem quickly if the soldiers meant to do the killing realised the person they were killing liked playing the same sport, or listening to the same music, or missed their Mom just as much... 

No. If one group wants to demean another group, possibly violate their human rights, they have to make sure their own people, their audience, doesn't get to see this "other" group as people with faces and families and favourite songs and comfort foods, and talents, and hobbies, and all the other things that make them more like us than different.

Now, prominent right wing speakers, from the GOP in the US and the CPC in Canada, are using the term "illegals" to dehumanise a group of people who have had a overwhelming lack of choice in their circumstances. Yes, they chose to flee rather than stay put and be killed. Or jailed. Or persecuted.  Although, that is not much of a choice by most rational standards. Some are fleeing war. Some are fleeing oppression because of sexual orientation, or religion, or ethnic group. Some are fleeing poverty and gang violence. But they have made the terribly difficult decision to move, to leave their homes and the lives they knew, because staying put was unsustainable. 

We cannot "other" people. We all share this fragile planet. We are all human, With glorious skills and tragic flaws. Every individual deserves to be evaluated as an individual. Not as part of some homogeneous lump of humanity. We are all different, and all very much alike. Resist those who stereotype or vilify based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, skin colour, and all the other things we cannot change about ourselves. Look at people as individuals. Look at people with an open mind, just as you would like others to see you. 

Call out those who "other", who try to judge based on stereotypes, who want to turn us against people and divide us. Don't let anyone talk you into hating someone just because of where they are from, or how they pray, or who they love. Go ahead and be angry at assholes, at abusers, at those who prey on other people, those who revel in making other people miserable, at bullies, at those who hurt others... But do it on an individual basis. Because every racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, skin colour, education level, socio-economic level group, every "group" you can think of, has people who can be identified as being in that group who are amazing, wonderful humans, and also those who are nasty, deceitful humans. And their group membership has nothing whatsoever to do with how they will treat you. That is internal and individual. 

Othering matters because it justified what happened to Jews in WWII. Othering matters because it is inextricably linked with gay bashing. Othering matters because there are people with free-range rage in their souls and they are looking for an anonymous group to vent it on. People who go into churches and shoot people in a prayer group because they are black. People who go into mosques and kill people at prayer because they are Muslim. And, yes, people who bomb nightclubs because the people inside are westerners. 

We have to struggle against othering because every single one of us deserves the right to be evaluated on our individual merits and flaws. We cannot let our fellow humans become faceless objects of revulsion and violence. 

History has shown that ignoring othering kills.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

We have a responsibility to call out our MPs, our media, our friends, neighbours, and family when they dehumanize people and label them. It is not ok. It is never just a joke. It is not "just words". If we do not speak up now, who will? 


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