Others Othering


Photo from Shameful vandals scrawl ‘Islam’ on sacred war memorials

The death of a single soldier can be said to be a minor or local event, but the death of Drummer Lee Rigsby really disturbs me, and feels much larger than a single individual. For one thing, the death itself was deliberately loaded with symbolic overtones. Another: the crowd couldn’t think of anything to do other than take photos and chat with the murderer. Still another: that it took twenty minutes for the police to show up. (Or is that “bother to show up”?)

We have become so used to the idea that it’s bad to think of other people as Other that we have come to reject the belief that enemies can be real, but to refuse to believe in the reality of enemies is appeasement, not compassion. There is nothing merciful about being nice to people who want to kill your neighbors. Even the staunchest pacifist has only his own life to throw away – and still has a moral obligation to do something to protect the little children, the very old, the vulnerable. To do nothing in the face of evil is itself evil.

But we are confronted with a trick and a problem.

The trick is knowing how to tell a genuine enemy from a person who maybe just doesn’t share our views. This is harder than it sounds, and people on both sides of the political aisle (at least here in the USA, now, at this time) have difficulty with it.

A few centuries ago it was easy: people from far away were Other. If they didn’t dress like you or talk like you, there was a good chance they meant trouble. If they didn’t look like you, the very fact that they were in your neighborhood might mean a chance to trade – but more probably meant bad news.

And I do believe it has taken us literally centuries to transition from this older view to a new view, where appearance matters less than the rules we live by. And we’re still in that transition. We still haven’t figured out the new rules.

Some people claim that the “intolerant” should “not be tolerated” – by which they usually mean Christians and/or conservatives, even though they themselves are doing exactly to the Christians what they claim the Christians are doing to someone else (usually them). Simply not sharing your moral code is not enough to make someone Other. The ideal of living and coexisting harmoniously does not come with a guarantee that your neighbor will approve of how you behave.

Other people insist that some group that genuinely does want to kill us is the enemy – Muslims, for example (though sometimes other groups are singled out). The problem with this is it’s way too broad. The Tsarnaev brothers can fairly be described as enemies of America; it is not unrealistic to say that the act of detonating bombs at the Boston marathon is an enemy sort of act. But their uncle is not – he is on our side; he accepts the fundamental expectation that differentiates the “us” from the “Other”, and therefore he is not only on our side, but he has a claim on us; in exchange for speaking out against his own kinsmen, he makes enemies of our enemies; he paints a target on himself. We owe it to him to offer him alliance and protection.

The problem is knowing what to do about an enemy. Just because someone genuinely is an Other does not mean we can just do whatever we want. We now realize that ethics continue to be relevant even when dealing with enemies – perhaps especially when dealing with enemies. This too is problematic, and difficult.

But the first step, I think, is to understand the problem as a problem. Right now we seem to be having a great deal of trouble articulating what it means to be part of our culture, and people can argue that it’s always wrong to Other people, and in the same breath Other those whom they feel are too close to Othering others.