The Other as a Mirror
The Other and Othering is a dynamic and challenging subject area. During the turbulent global atmosphere in which we are living, the Other is the holder of all that a person, community, or culture is unable or unwilling to own about himself or herself. Let me explain what I mean and the ways we can do our inner work to shift our perspectives.
Human beings distance themselves, emotionally, physically, and psychologically from things, situations, people, opinions, and places they do not like including aspects of ourselves. We all do this in many different ways and to varying degrees. Most of the time human beings are not even fully aware of this most basic of human traits. Distancing ourselves allows us to observe differences. Anthropologists’ separate themselves from the people, cultures, rituals, and traditions of peoples or groups that they are observing in order to remain objective. Even though there is no such methodology, which is truly objective. After all, we take ourselves and therefore the way we view and navigate the world along with us everywhere we go. Every human being had a childhood and during that childhood, we learned things about ourselves which we liked or didn't, about how to behave in the world or not, and as a result, learned what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable. Our experiences to an extent shape our worldview, our biases, and our values.
Reality television is based on the human fascination of watching other human beings in order to determine what is normal behavior or not, people similar to us, and those who are different. Although reality television is quite the oxymoron, as there is nothing real about being monitored 24/7 and knowing every action is being critiqued. However, in theory, under normal circumstances, watching others and seeing ourselves in them or not as is often the most immediate case, is a deeply ingrained human trait and way of being in the world. If you immediately recognize this trait in yourself, you’d likely call yourself a “people watcher.” Our human fascinations with each other lead to the first reality show Big Brother that aired on Dutch television in 1999. The show was a massive success and spawned a whole new genre of television, reality TV. After all, viewers in Europe were invited into the private lives of a group of people they would not under any circumstances have access to view. We lived in the Dutch capital Amsterdam for several years so I can give you two pieces of insider information about why the show was so unusual for Dutch culture. First of all, the Dutch have a saying “there is nothing as strange as normal human behavior” which is very funny because it is so true! And secondly, and this is often a misunderstood cultural norm, the Dutch leave their curtains open, but not because they want you to look in, in fact looking into someone else’s house is considered extremely rude. No, the Dutch leave their curtains open to prove that they have nothing to hide. Think more like… “nothing happening here folks, move right on along.” So while homes have curtains open at night and lights on, people are expected notto look, and certainly not stare.
Differences are part of human existence. However, when we highlight the differences as a means of elevating ourselves above someone else, our observances go from one of curiosity to one of separation and thus judgment. Creating an “Other” instantly separates people into groups, “us” and “them.” Eckhart Tolle also believes, “the way in which you perceive the other is determined by your own thought forms.” The way we approach people, cultures, religions that are another version of the human experience than us, says a lot about ourselves and less about them.
Throughout human existence, human beings seeking dominance over others first have to vilify them. One way to vilify a human being is by making them “less than” human. So in order to create a status or an Other onto which we project things/ aspects/ traits/ biases/prejudices etc. that we deem unworthy, unclean, or simply put another way, unlovable. The process of vilification is one of the primary tools of colonization, white supremacy, religious superiority, binary gender, and hetero dominance. Vilification can happen to either individuals or groups of people, in either case, the purpose is to isolate and victimize.
Dehumanizing or Othering individuals have lead to wars, genocide, slavery, segregation, elitism, and human trafficking to name but a few. Othering says that someone else is not as important as we are. We all look and seek people who are like ourselves and more often than not, not as a way of discrimination but in order to belong and feel connected to like-minded individuals. However, we often have a lot more in common with people than we realize and diversity enriches our limited human experience.
When we divide groups of people and create an us and them situation, it automatically assumes that one side is good and the other side bad. That one side is in, the other out, one side is right, the other wrong. This is a deliberately binary system, meaning two-sided and an only two-sided system was set up in Western culture a long time ago. Does this binary system still serve us in 2019? Are there really only two ways anymore? Two of anything anymore? I don’t think there ever was.
At both the 2018 and 2019 US National Popular Culture conferences, the subject of the Other arose on many different discipline panels, indicating that the subject of the Other is very much on the mind of the collective (representing many individuals). My paper focused on the current political climate and on those who have been marginalized but who are stepping forward out of the shadows at this time in order to be seen and heard. Other ethnicities, Other religions, Other gender expressions, Other sexual orientation identities, Other ecologies, and Other forms of intelligence. The fact is, the Other has always been there, they’ve just been relegated to the shadows.
Everything and everyone we are drawn to or repelled by is, in fact, a mirror of our own inner dynamics.
Think about two people, one you like and one you may not be so fond of or have difficulty in your relationship with. Take two pieces of paper and list all the qualities you like about the person you admire or are fond of on one page. On the other sheet write all the qualities, aspect, and traits you don't like about your second person.
Look at each list and honestly see if you can see yourself in either of those lists. Can you? Was it easier to align with the “Like” list over the “Dislike” list? Pick one thing off your dislike trait list and be honest with yourself, where are you or have you been like that which you dislike?
It can be very hard to own the parts of ourselves we don’t like, those parts that we may not even be aware of or we are aware of but are too afraid to admit. Looking at and integrating our shadow is deep but important work for we don’t just put what we don’t like in the shadow, it also holds our gold!