From an evolutionary perspective, dividing the human world into Same versus Other once made sense. It was a vital survival mechanism – Same was safe while there was a good chance Other would kill you. When the singular goal of every day was simply to survive until tomorrow, there was little time to spend worrying about a more enlightened approach to differences between one person or tribe and another. But those days are long, long gone and, despite what fear-mongers would like us to believe, our lives do not depend on isolating, attacking, and annihilating those who are not just like us.
If we no longer need to separate humanity into Same versus Other for physical survival, why are we still so quick to do it? I believe there are countless reasons with nuances as unique as each individual that clings to them, but I think many of the reasons fit under the umbrellas of a few major categories.
- Fear of harm– Perhaps the most common reason for Othering, fear is a hot commodity in our modern world. Sold to us by those with something to gain from our fear, whether power, money, or control, it is eagerly bought by those who believe that such fears of the Other can keep them safe. We all have a deep need to feel safe which means we are constantly on the lookout for things that could harm us. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for safety is trumped in importance only by our physiological needs. I worry, though, that as a society we have lost the ability and even the desire to distinguish between real threats to our safety and imagined threats. Our vivid imaginations of all that could possibly harm us are exploited by those in the business of selling a sense of safety. Whether it is a politician telling us we must fight and kill the Other in their homeland to keep them from killing us in our streets or the pastor telling his congregation the Other wants to take away their right to worship their god of choice or the leader of a neighborhood association telling homeowners that crime will inevitably increase if people of a particular race buy homes near them, there are people in this world who thrive, in some way or another, on feeding our imaginations with fear. Our innate desire for safety and security makes us an easy target for anyone with an agenda and the ability to identify an Other for us to fear and blame.
- Desire to belong – Maslow identified belonging as the next priority once our need for safety is adequately satisfied. Any parent or anyone who has worked closely with children will tell you that children have an intense desire to belong that motivates much of their behavior with their peers. Children keenly feel the pain of Othering and will do almost anything to stay in the Same. Although growing up usually means learning to cope better with being rejected as different and therefore not belonging, it still stings to be Othered. Of course, the level of pain is proportional to how much you care about those doing the Othering, but I think most of us desire to be liked and accepted as a general rule. The dichotomy between Same and Other is ingrained in us from an early age. It is so deep within our psyche that many of us go through life not realizing that there is a third option of Same-and-Other available by which we can connect with each other while still celebrating and learning from our differences.
- Inertia (and Laziness) – Grouping people into Same versus Other is the default setting for most of us. It isn’t something most of us do intentionally – we’ve just always done it. We probably don’t even realize how often we do it or the effect it has on our lives. Recognizing the effect our fears, beliefs, and desires have on our relationships with others takes time, energy, and examination. In all honesty, it is far easier to not be intentional than it is to live an intentional, purposeful life. It is easier to engage with people based on categorical labels regarding gender, marital status, age, religious preference, sexuality, race, economic class, etc. than it is to embrace and relish the mystery of each individual and their own journey. It is easier to live in the dichotomy of Same versus Other, Us versus Them, but continued inertia and laziness keep us from a rich, layered experience of humanity.
Understanding the whys behind Othering is an important step in growing beyond that practice. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the myriad reasons behind the behavior, but I think it provides a starting point for further examination. Once we can identify the whys at the root of this problematic behavior, we can begin to mend that which has been stunted or broken by it.