Tag Archives: othering

Link: “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”

Briefly resurrecting this blog in order to post a link to I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup by Scott Alexander. It’s long but the whole thing’s worth reading.

I think after that, anything else I’d post here would just be needlessly repetitive.

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The Hunger Games

The release of the film The Hunger Games highlighted some worrying examples of othering recently.

Certain responses – from a very limited segment of the fan-base of the books and the film, no doubt – to the casting of black actors in major roles were disheartening, and actually quite shocking. You really don’t expect to hear things like this being said so brazenly in this day and age, except from devotedly hateful extremists.

But the comments listed on that post, and this tumblr compilation, seem to be more lazily thoughtless and tribalistic than actively racist.

Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture

I’m still a bit lost for words at this. I can’t quite get my head around the necessary sequence of events. First, this person must have experienced a feeling of crushing disappointment at realising that a character she’d read about had dark skin (even though, I’m told, this character’s skin colour is explicitly described as such in the book). Further, it must have entirely failed to occur to them that the qualities she originally admired or appreciated in Rue might still be present – that the colour of her skin might be no hindrance whatever to this young girl being innocent, or likeable, or courageous, or charming, or quick-witted, or whatever she’s like.

And then they must have decided that publicly expressing all these unfiltered prejudices was a perfectly fine thing to do.

Some black girl.

Absent but strongly implied, of course, is the word “just”. Just some black girl.

Not, like, a girl girl. Just some black girl.

However you might have told the story to yourself while reading it, I don’t understand how you can have this reaction to encountering an entirely irrelevant racial disparity, and believe that it’s an acceptable reaction to have.

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America’s history of tribalism

A Tiny Revolution has a collection of quotes that demonstrate the way white Americans have dehumanised others to justify imperialism, conquest, and slavery.

The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.

[T]he Iraqis don’t on the whole say “darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.” They sort of accept that.

[Sheikhs]… do not seem to resent… that women and children are accidentally killed by bombs.

Marine major Julian Smith testified that the “racial psychology” of the “poorer class of Nicaraguans” made them “densely ignorant… A state of war to them is a normal condition.”

Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.

The third quote there was actually from a British commander. Any cursory glance at history will tell you that my country is also among the experts at “othering” foreigners to the point of redefining them as entirely separate species.

And that last one? Thomas Jefferson, talking about black slaves.

Holy crap people are good at hating other people.

And we’re not over it yet. Not by a long shot.

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The Difference Between Us And Them

This post by Popehat could almost serve as a manifesto for this blog. It’s framed in the context of American politics, but summarises many major points of self-serving tribalism and othering which can be seen in every kind of discussion imaginable.

Sample quote:

They are constantly saying vile, racist and sexist, and threatening things about Us. That’s unacceptable. To make things worse, because They don’t understand humor, satire, parody, or context, and because They are willing to misconstrue things for political profit, They are constantly and unreasonably whining about Us of saying allegedly vile, racist, sexist, and threatening things about them.

What he’s not bluntly and dully spelling out, of course, is that there really is no “Us” and “Them”. There are no “Others”. But breaking that habit of thought – the habit by which we tend to make excuses for ourselves and cast our own group in a favourable light, while condemning the “enemy” at every opportunity and granting them no such leniency – is difficult and unnatural, and requires a good deal more reflection, study, and humility than many of us are capable of or inclined towards.

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Disability and poverty

Having discussed the way people claiming benefits are not, in fact, an undeserving and contemptible drain on our resources, it’s worth noting that attitudes toward the poor or the disabled show little sign of improving.

When a family member or close friend is struck with some illness or other major life inconvenience, most of us would probably drop everything to help them as much as we were needed. We’d do our best to see that the people we care about got the required care from others, and that professionals in fields like health services did their jobs well to look after our loved ones.

But upsettingly often, we don’t seem inclined to treat strangers with the same compassion, or even with basic decency.

A number of disability charities and organisations have warned about increased abuse directed at disabled people. They say that much of the media and many individuals in government are perpetuating a damaging worldview, in which people with disabilities or claiming benefits are undeserving, don’t contribute to society the way “we” do, and are somehow responsible for the financial hardships that the rest of us face.

It seems like people are letting the indignation they feel at the thought of being cheated by “scroungers” overwhelm them. This fear is blocking their capacity to behave with compassion to other people in need, and they’re choosing instead to be harsh and judgmental as a first resort.

There’s little doubt that a lot of misleading media coverage is fuelling this kind of attitude. The continuous portrayal of feckless scroungers as representative of benefits claimants in general actively encourages many newspaper readers to see these people as part of a hated outgroup.

The situation is also not improved by the shockingly ignorant assertions made by some government ministers, such as Maria Miller. Frighteningly for someone in the role of the UK’s minister for disabled people in the Department for Work and Pensions, her concern for the people she’s supposed to be representing and helping doesn’t seem to stretch as far as looking at the facts; the 400,000 jobs on offer that she’s so proud of doesn’t look so impressive when compared against 2.68 million unemployed people (let alone those already in work but looking for another job). To blame the problem on a lack of “appetite” for work is ludicrous.

Across the pond in the US, the Governor of Florida has been pressing on with his own efforts to vilify the poor, by demanding drug tests from those in line to receive welfare. The project is estimated to cost $178,000,000 this year, and it currently looks like the savings will amount to less than 0.1% of that amount. They’re not turning out to be a shower of crackheads at quite the rate he predicted, and this supposedly money-saving scheme is becoming immensely wasteful.

I can’t see into Governor Rick Scott’s mind and determine why he’s been keen to spend so much of his taxpayers’ money on a scheme that serves only to demonise a demographic least able to defend themselves. There are probably political pressures weighing on him, and it’s possible he rationalised himself into thinking that it was a good idea. He’s a complex human being himself, and doesn’t deserve hatred.

But it’s clear that civilised society has a long way to go before we can stop othering the disabled and the poor, stop finding reasons to hate them and dehumanise them to assuage our guilt about their situation, and start treating everyone in a way that befits the values we claim to aspire to.

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Othering 101: What Is “Othering”?

By “othering”, we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

This psychological tactic may have had its uses in our tribal past. Group cohesion was crucially important in the early days of human civilisation, and required strong demarcation between our allies and our enemies. To thrive, we needed to be part of a close-knit tribe who’d look out for us, in exchange for knowing that we’d help to look out for them in kind. People in your tribe, who live in the same community as you, are more likely to be closely related to you and consequently share your genes.

As a result, there’s a powerful evolutionary drive to identify in some way with a tribe of people who are “like you”, and to feel a stronger connection and allegiance to them than to anyone else. Today, this tribe might not be a local and insular community you grew up with, but can be, for instance, fellow supporters of a sports team or political party.

It’s probably not quite as simple as the just-so story we’re describing here. But there’s no doubt that grouping people into certain stereotyped classes, who we then treat differently based on the classes we’ve sorted them into, is a deeply rooted aspect of human nature. Intergroup bias is a well established psychological trait.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us” is a simple heuristic people often use to decide whether someone is part of their tribe or not. If you are, then you can be expected to toe the line in certain ways if you don’t want to be ejected; if you’re not, you can be dismissed and hated as an “other”, the enemy.

A number of psychological experiments, such as the Asch Conformity Experiment, demonstrate the extent to which we feel compelled to make sure we fit in, as part of the tribe, in some situations.

Other research into, for instance, the Benjamin Franklin effect, shows that we have a startling tendency to come to hate people who we treat badly. If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them.

Political partisanship is a common area for othering to be found, and will likely be a prominent focus on this site. Any American readers will surely have noticed a tendency in many of their countryfolk to speak of “Democrats” or “Republicans” with derision, imagining this “other” to be a homogeneous group. The desire to associate with one party or the other is so strong that people will even support the other party’s policies, when they believe they’re identifying with their own group. To some extent, one’s political allegiances seem to have more to do with the label somebody has adopted than their actual opinions. (This has also been noted by Howard Stern, although he seemed to miss the point that this is something we’re all capable of, not just Obama supporters in Harlem.)

Furthermore, experiments such as the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes exercise demonstrate just how readily we can be swept up in a group identity, learning to embrace only those of our tribe and reject the “others”, even when the difference is entirely arbitrary and meaningless.

The concept behind this site, then, is that a) humans have an undeniable and insidious inclination to engage in “othering” thought patterns for the purpose of self-preservation, and b) learning to avoid and counteract these thought patterns is integral to greatly reducing the world’s hatred and suffering. Our intent is to raise people’s consciousness about othering behaviour, to make them more alert to these thought patterns, and to encourage alternative ways of addressing the problems that we often seek to avoid by dehumanising any one group.

This site is still in the early stages of its development, and is not created or maintained by any experts in psychology, or anything else for that matter. We will be as science-based as possible, but if you want to read some more about the relevant psychological subjects by browsing around on Wikipedia for a while, this might be a good place to start.

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