Othering and overpowering
What is “otherism”? What role is it playing in our lives? What are the effects of otherism? And most importantly what needs to be done against the negative aspects of otherism? This article aims to clarify these issues and to give the opportunity to reflect on potential solutions to the problem of otherism.
Why did I choose this tool? While there is a lot of material about otherism, where it comes from, its political function, why is it historically relevant and what negative effects we see because of it, there is less directly addressing how we can fight otherism. And more importantly how we can do this not as governments, institutions or even organizations but how can we do this as individuals, and perhaps as trainers to be able to support others to do the same. This article is an attempt to not only describe otherism but also suggest a perspective/method that can be useful in countering it.
How does this apply to being a trainer? The effects of otherism are not always conscious, therefore it is possible that as trainers we may be seeing certain types of people as “the other” without even being aware of it. It is necessary to bring this to our own awareness and make conscious and informed decisions rather than falling into the trap of otherness, particularly because as trainers working in an international context it is likely that we will be working with all kinds of people. It is also likely that we will give trainings that address racism, discrimination, human rights, or other issues that directly or indirectly deal with otherism, and therefore it’s necessary to have a deep understanding of the topic and the ability to support others in moving past otherism.
The concept of “the Other” is a complex one, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it means. Does it have any meaning at all?
What I would like to do here is to concentrate on a phenomenon that derives from the concept; the act of othering as a manifestation of power relations. When we start describing ourselves as part of a group of people united in a “we”, while other people are constructed as fundamentally different, united in a “they”, we are using a powerful weapon that might serve to delegitimize others.
According to Michel Foucault, othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we “other” another group, we point out their perceived weaknesses to make ourselves look stronger or better. It implies a hierarchy, and it serves to keep power where it already lies.
The examples from pre-1960s ethnography underlines an important element of othering – differences between societies are emphasized while similarities are hidden. It is easier to legitimize power over another group when this group seems to have very little in common with the group in power.
It’s hard to imagine a society in which we divide people into “us” and “them” without putting “us” above “them”. Simultaneously, it’s difficult to defend an idea of absolutely all group thinking as solely negative, because a completely individual mode of thinking makes it almost impossible to address discrimination and the collective aspect of power and power abuse. What is more important to remember, though, is that most of us are members of countless different groups, that might need to act as groups at different times. Context is important when playing out identities.
We cannot get away from the concept of the other, as it is too crucial for an understanding of the self. What we can do, though, is to limit the ways in which we group people up and construct them as something entirely different from an imagined “us”. The power of definition is a strong one, and when used in the context of othering, it continues to reinforce discrimination.
In light of the fact that “othering” can be used as a tool for dehumanization and even a justification for violence, while at the same time “othering” is a natural and sometimes needed human instinct, what can or should be done about it?
Being inclusive of everyone and practicing equality in all spheres of life seems like the best answer. And yet this still seems to fail to answer the question of how. Developing empathy and genuinely believing that each individual person is equal to us and worthy of belonging, respect and care is a point that each person has to reach on their own and not something that can really be taught or enforced from the outside. Sure the necessary laws and educational programs can be created and implemented, but if you have ever felt hatred just from the way someone looked at another, you will probably agree that there are aspects of “othering” that will never be resolved by any external mechanisms.
The only way to get past the walls and weapons created by otherism is to understand that there is at least one thing that binds us all together, even if it is the only one. This binding element is the fact that we all have the capacity to experience the same emotions and we all want to feel the good ones rather than the bad ones. It’s impossible to treat someone as an “other” when we see them as similar to ourselves, and in this way, we are all the same. We know what it’s like to feel sad, to feel happy, to feel guilty, to feel at peace. And by the same token, we all want to experience the positive feelings rather than the negative ones.
Therefore if otherism is an attempt to dehumanize groups of people, the way to humanize them again is through emotion and empathy. When we can feel the same as another, we will want to protect them from harm the same way we would want to protect ourselves or those that are close to us.
The way to do that is to have a genuine interaction with “the other”. To take the time to understand their hopes, their dreams, what they love, what they hate, what they fear, what they embrace. And through this, we can come to understand that the only differences between us are stemming from the ways that we use to feel the way we want to feel, or what makes us feel good or bad. But at the core, our experiences, in terms of positive or negative emotions, are the same.
For example, 2 people could argue until they are blue whether it’s better to be a religious person or to be a yogi, while in reality if they were both honest and expressing their feelings they may realize that they are both trying to achieve the exact same goal, peace of mind, and yet have different methods (yoga and religion) that help them to achieve their goal.
The language we use, our traditions or cultural ways, our ways of dressing, are all secondary to what those things actually mean to us. And there are times when we can be very wrong about what something means unless we ask and truly want to understand the answer. For instance, it can be easy to assume that a woman wearing a headscarf is a sign that she is being oppressed, when in fact an honest and open conversation with her may reveal that she wears the headscarf proudly and as a sign of self-respect. Another woman might just as proudly be wearing mini-shorts, and have just as erroneous misinterpretations made about her by those who don’t take the time to understand her and rely on their own assumptions and prejudices instead.
Once we have taken the time to get out of our own circles and to get a taste of the experiences of “the other”, we are much more capable of reaching conclusions that reflect the reality rather than merely operating with the constructed reality that may favor “us” above the “other”. However convenient that might seem for us at times, it means living a lie or a half-truth, and is the cause of so much unnecessary pain and suffering. If you have ever been on the receiving end of discrimination and prejudice, you know what it feels like to be “othered”. And even if you happen to be on “the good side” of otherism, and a part of the “us” instead of the “them”, you also hurt yourself because you can limit and even deaden your mind and your heart by closing yourself off to certain types of people. No one really wins from otherism, except perhaps certain political agendas.
Having said all that, we can’t fight otherism with intellectual arguments. The only way to really fight otherism is to feel what “the other” is feeling, and to connect with them on an emotional level. One example is a method used in Human Rights Education for children, where each child is writing a different account of what happened during a day at camp. It is a good example of how to bring out empathy for the other by exposing them to how the other is really feeling, and how wrong, or how harsh, their assumptions about the other may have been. Children can tend to be more open emotions and therefore they are prime candidates for learning empathy. By the same token, if we can get back in touch with our own emotions and with the emotions of others, then empathy rather then prejudice and discrimination can become our automatic reactions.
Taken from “Compasito 2nd Edition: Activity “Dear Diary”
The relevant aims of this activity are:
- To practice communication and observation skills
- To enhance empathy
- To become aware of judgmental attitudes
- To understand the subjectivity of individual experience
During the summer months, many children go to summer camp. The following stories are taken from the diaries of three children who meet for the first time at the same summer camp. They are the same age and involved in the same activities. One day, the youth leaders organized “Great Adventurous Day”. During the evening all three children wrote the story of that day in their diaries.
Margaret wrote under her bedcovers by torchlight.
Oh, what a great day it was. We did many crazy things and I believe it could have been one of the best days in my life. We had exciting activities that were sometimes even dangerous. But I was never afraid. Unlike my friends who did not enjoy everything as I hoped they would. It was a pity Elsa and Ricardo were so strange today.
But to start at the beginning: When we woke up, the leaders divided us into different groups. I was together with Ricardo and Elsa. I like both of them because yesterday we were also in the same group and we laughed so much at all the jokes we were telling each other. The leader gave us 3 messages written in secret codes and we had to find the solutions. I was the first one to find my solution. After a while Ricardo also had his solution, but Elsa was very slow. When I asked her if she needed help, she said she didn’t like the activity and that solving the secret code was a boring thing to do. Then I saw that she was holding the paper upside down and I laughed at her saying that she would never find it like this. She gave me an angry look and threw the paper away. “I want to play, not read stuff, she said. I don’t think she is very clever. I wonder if she can read at all – strange because all kids my age can read and write!
Well, we finally managed to discover the meaning of the 3 messages. Then we went down to the river where we played football against another group of children. That was fun. We almost won but it’s all Elsa’s fault that we lost. Every time the ball came close to her, she touched it with her hands, kicked the other children and made a lot of mistakes. It was like she had never played football before. That seems weird. We all play football after school. Next time I want to be in a different group from Elsa.
After lunch – the meals here are really disgusting – we had to build a raft to cross the river. And that was cool because we had to look for wood and then make all kinds of knots with ropes. Elsa and I were looking for good strong logs, but Ricardo was always bringing in these skinny sticks. I told him that since he was a boy he should work as hard as we were. He said he was dizzy and his back hurt. I think that was just an excuse not to work. When we finished, our raft was the best ever – even the leader said this! Then the leader counted – 1, 2 and 3 – and then we had to jump on the raft and cross the river together. I jumped first but I fell in the water. Brrr…the water was very, very cold and I screamed at first. Luckily the leader helped me out and then we were all laughing. When I told my friends how cold the water really was, Ricardo said he didn’t feel like going anymore. I think he was afraid of the cold water. I didn’t know before that Ricardo was such a loser! First the wood and then the water! When I told him he should be braver, he ran away crying. I don’t think I want to be in the same group with him anymore! Actually, I will ask the leader to put me in another group next time because Elsa is stupid and Ricardo is just a sissy.
I didn’t speak to Elsa and Ricardo again after that and…oops, I think the leaders are coming to our room. Sleep well, my dear diary. Tomorrow I’ll give you more news.
The following diary was written for Elsa, with the help of a leader.
You are my first own diary and I am Elsa. I hope you will stay with me for a long time. I asked the leader to write this page for me. He says when I get older, I can read about what I did at camp. I like the idea. We are sitting away from the other children because I don’t want anybody to know that the leader is helping me.
Today was a full day of activities. In the morning I had to be in the same group as Margaret and Ricardo. I like Ricardo more than Margaret. She always thinks she knows better than anybody else!
It all started with the messages in secret code that we had to solve. I don’t like those things because I still can’t read very well, and Margaret was always shouting to hurry up. I wish I could read better. Then I would read all the books in the whole world. But since my daddy left, I have to stay home and take care of the little kids while Mum goes to work. I really want to go to school, but Mum always says that it’s more important to be able to have food than to be able to read a book. I didn’t want Ricardo and Margaret to know that I cannot read, so I tried to pretend that I was solving the secret code. But then Margaret laughed at me and I was sad and angry at the same time.
And then it was the same story with football. I really wanted our team to win, but everything I did seemed to be wrong. Everybody knows the game except me. I see the other children always play football when they come back from school. But my mother says, “If you have to time to play, you have time to work”. So I’ve never managed to learn how to play.
After the lunch we went to build a boat to cross the river. And here I think I was better than Margaret and Ricardo. I know how to make knots and what kind of wood we needed to make a strong boat. But Ricardo acted strangely. He was almost wetting his pants after Margaret told him how cold the water was.
I hope tomorrow we are again in the same group. I want to prove to them that I can do many things! And I really like the leaders at the camp!
Bye, Diary, till tomorrow.
Ricardo has a big diary that he has been writing in for several years. This is what he wrote about the Great Adventurous Day.
My dearest Diary,
Again I am writing to tell you how sad and disappointed I am. In the morning we did activities I liked. The secret code is easy for me as I do them all the time at home. And in football, I played the goalie like always.
The lunch was great, probably the best I have ever eaten. I eat a lot here, unlike at home where I always have to wait till my younger brothers and sisters have eaten. Not here! I can even go back for seconds. I like that! I think I am even putting on weight. When I go back home, I won’t be the skin-and-bones boy anymore!
But the afternoon was terrible. We had to get very heavy wood and then go in very cold water. I don’t like that because I would be ill for sure and I don’t want that anymore. My father has told me that the day he finds a new job, he will take me to the hospital and make me healthy again. He says that then I will be able to do all the activities I want and not have to stay in bed all the time. I wish my father could have a new job tomorrow. Then I would get healthy again fast! I don’t want to tell this to the other children at camp because then they will know we don’t have any money at home and they will tease me about it.
Dear Diary, when will I be healthy again? I want to be like the other children. I want to play and run and jump. I hope it happens soon, but I’m afraid it may never happen.
Sleep well, my dearest Diary. I’ll tell you more tomorrow. You are the only one who knows my secrets.
After the children have completed the reenactment of the story based on their characters, they are asked the following questions:
a. Why did these children misunderstand each other?
b. Do you think the children would have behaved differently if they had known more about each
other’s lives? How?
c. What misunderstandings did they have about each other?
d. How did they make these mistakes?
e. Have you ever made mistakes in your opinion of someone else?
f. What happens when we misjudge other people?
g. What can we do to avoid making mistakes about other people?
Activities like this can give us the chance to “walk a kilometer in the shoes of the other” and through this understand how they feel, rehumanize them and empathize with the things they struggle with rather than judge them for it.
Who would I consider as being “us”? And who would I consider to be “them”?
Examples: rich/poor; educated/uneducated; vegetarian/carnivore; man/woman; soldier/peacemaker; environmentalist/polluter, etc.
How did I develop this understanding of us and them?
Have I fully examined this belief and the facts/absence of facts behind it?
Have I taken steps to understand the other, to understand the reasons for their behavior and ideas?
Are there aspects of the other that I can relate to, understand and/or empathize with?
Can I find it within me to not see them as “the other”, but rather as fellow humans who at their core are the same as me?
Can I find it within me to treat them with the same understanding, respect, care and kindness that I would want myself and my loved ones to be treated with?
Do this exercise with someone you are close to but who is very different from you (different country, different background, different sector, etc.)
Tell each other your life story in detail, especially the moments that were important to you (good and bad). If the whole life story seems like too much, you can also focus on one or a few stories that had a lot of meaning to the other person. As you are listening to each other, really get into the story and imagine it being you experiencing those things, and observe how the different parts of the story make you feel (excited, happy, sad, disappointed, frustrated, etc.) Some people may have an easier time empathizing then others, but we all have within us the capacity for empathy. Sometimes it’s just a matter of giving empathy a chance to come to the fore by allowing ourselves to feel what someone else felt (or is feeling).
If you find yourself thinking of anyone as the other and prejudging their actions or words, remind yourself that this person, just like you, is doing what they believe to be right according to what they know. Remind yourself that it’s very likely that if you had been raised in the same way as them, exposed to the same things as them, and given the same information as them, that you may have ended up acting the same as them. And the fact that these elements are different is worthy of neither praise nor blame, just understanding.