Othering

I’ve been noticing a troubling trend in the wake of our ongoing cycle of tragic news stories: othering.

Othering is by no means new, but I’ve been struck lately by the ease with which it slips out into the open, from people of all political backgrounds. One person might other Muslims while another might other Christians, but neither form of othering should be welcome in the good society.

Sociologist Steven Sideman has a great paper exploring the theory of othering, in which he explains the term:

An elaborated account of otherness assumes a social world that is symbolically divided into two antagonistic orders: a symbolic-moral order conferring full personhood and a respected civil status and its antithesis, a defiled order. Othering is a process in which certain persons and the spaces they occupy are excluded from what is considered to be the morally sanctified civil life of a community. 

Typically, as sociologist Stephen Sapp writes, othering is a “processes that dominant groups use to define the existence of secondary groups,” but I am inclined to agree with Sideman that “disadvantaged status in one or more social spheres does not necessarily mean subordination across all spheres.”

Our American red state/blue state rivalry is indicative of this: some liberals other conservatives just as some conservatives other liberals. It’s hard to say which group is dominant, but either way, we are unlikely to find a way out of our political gridlock until we stop othering each other.

Othering itself may be endemic to the human condition and may have its roots in less insidious thinking.

Sociologists Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers talk about the related field of implicit bias in terms of heuristics, or mental shortcuts: “Humans often rely on cognitive shortcuts to get things done. We categorize people and place them into preconceived notions.”

We literally could not function without these cognitive shortcuts: these are the same mental processes that allow us to navigate a subway system in a new city or recognize an object as a “table.” Humans categorize things to make sense of the world, and we’re very, very, good at doing so subconsciously.

This logic illustrates for Maddox and Sommers the problem of a “color-blind” approach to racial injustice. We can’t simply wash away our implicit biases: rather we must be made aware of them and we must work to confront them in ourselves.

Othering at times may be similarly implicit – I am certainly guilty of my own biases, and it’s easy to think of people different from oneself as an “other.”

But, just as color-blindness is not a solution, we must call ourselves out for our othering, and we must actively seek to not hold whole groups responsible for the actions of a few.

Following the recent attacks at a Planned Parenthood, it is fair to ask why white shooters seem to be perpetually treated more justly than unarmed black men. It is fair to point to the injustices in our system and to demand that all people be treated justly. But it is not fair to make jokes about registering Evangelicals or shutting down churches: we should never judge the whole by the actions of a few.

In the last few days, I have been heartened to see some of my pro-life friends share messages of support for Planned Parenthood. But, of course, I should hardly be surprised: regardless of how one feels about abortion, any reasonable person would be saddened by the shooting in Colorado. Only an extremists wanted that to happen, and we should never judge the whole by the actions of a few.

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