Othering


We are strange creatures, we humans. On the one hand we do not do so well on our own. We are bees in a beehive, each of us contributing our skills to the general cause. We want to belong... to another, to a family, society, or nation. And we conform to the zeitgeist, mysteriously finding our aesthetic mutating to coincide with the trend, whether it be a verbal tic or the current length of skirts.

Yet at the very same time we want to stand out. We do not want anyone to challenge our right to choose. We want to distinguish ourselves. This cult of individualism presupposes a comparative affluence and is associated with industrialisation and urban populations. When survival is threatened and the elements dominate, we know that our best bet is to work together.

Perhaps we imagine that we get the best of both worlds if our group, the collective to which we have decided we belong, can 'stand out', dominate, assume superiority. Our team wins and we feel a thrill. But our team winning assumes, of course, that the other team lost. The others who weren't us. Edward Said, in his famous study of imperialism, Orientalism, coined the notion of Othering which he defined as ‘disregarding, essentialising, denuding the humanity of another culture, people or geographical region’. By labelling a group of people as the Others, we assume a cohesion that is surely a chimera and we villify the individuals in that group through a series of completely bogus assumptions.

In January, Darris Golinski and I performed a short reflection on this idea of the Other and I still find my thoughts meandering around some of the ideas we explored. Said's definition of Othering as involving the process of essentialising, strikes me as very apt. Attending the meeting of an unfamiliar faith or denomination, choir, evening class (the list is endless), I can find myself feeling distant from this group that I imagine to have a uniformity that places me on the outside. And yet I always find points of connection with individuals within the group.

That notion of virtual uniformity has assailed me in airports where I can find myself assuming that everyone else around me as I wait for my flight, belongs somehow to the airport; that they all spend their time there everyday and form a group to which I don't belong. They are the Others,two-dimensional cartoon figures, the 'airport people', while I am a three -dimensional being unfortuantely lost in my delusional idea that I am the only one just passing through.

I think also about that experience of taking one of the table seats on a train carriage and shrinking from the three other fellow travellers whose faces are unfamiliar and unknowable because unknown. Yet by the end of the journey those three strange faces have become a bit familiar and knowable. Even if no words have been exchanged, little mannerisms and habits have been observed, conjecture has usually run rife and suddenly the sense of they has melted into a sense of we, four people who share this particular train carriage table.

And I find it amusing now to think of my preconceptions about British people and my attempts to fit in when I moved from Canada to London. Surely if I replaced my lax Canadian 't's' with crisp and correct 't's' and, for that matter, drank my tea very strong with milk (but should I add it first or last??), I would belong. I replaced all my Canadianisms with the British alternative: biscuit for cookie and nappy for diaper. Once I asked a shop keeper if he sold sheers, but after a convoluted exchange realised that what I really wanted was net curtains. I felt that my Canadian Jewish presentation of self was too loud and unBritish (which I defined as restrained, correct and perspicacious) so I tried to tone down and not disturb the airways quite so much. I was being unkind to myself based on a lot of preconceptions and in any case, I missed all the nuances that the people surrounding me were picking up all the time about place in the social strata; I was assuming a sort of synthesis, a commonality in all these Others around me that simply didn't and doesn't exist.

So is particularising, rather than essentialising, the solution to the distance and unkindness Othering creates? My thoughts go to that notion of togetherness and completeness that can be so beguiling. Two people who merge together and become one, or two people who are essentially one, as Eve was to Adam, having been formed from his rib. And yet in order for those two people to cleave together, to find a sense of unity, they have to in some way maintain their otherness. The Kabbalah (the mystical branch of the Jewish faith) would have it that God removed Adam's rib to form Eve so that he would feel a space and emptiness within him and long for her as a companion to salve his loneliness.

I once read that the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti, was driven to his representation of the human form as being so thin as to be almost substanceless, by a vast sense of loneliness. He wanted to both evoke the space that exists around us and to celebrate it, for he came to believe that it was only in the space between that we could create relationship.

And the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet wrote:

“The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

Perhaps we need to think differently about the Other. We can no more assume the particularity of another than we can his or her commonality with the group. But to accept another as being different and separate from ourselves is not to Other him or her in the sense that Edward Said defined; it is to acknowledge and respect the complete humanity of that person standing before us whose inner life is as vivid and compelling as, if different from, our own inner life. Through an act of imagination we can attempt to find empathy with and understanding of that person while celebrating the distance or differences that exist between us.And it is in that imaginative leap that we may find the warmth and connection, the belonging that I believe we all ultimately seek.

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