Othering

Chances are the argumentative, persuasive pieces of writing you come across every day (if you read, or use the internet) open with a hook phrase, they open a battle already won as soon as you, the reader, apply it, engage with it, bite the hook, imagine. A truth, and also my hook – let’s talk about who you are, and how you came to be; and more importantly to answer these questions – who you are not. The hook metaphor of being shaped by ideas of others, who use smart, sometimes hidden tools to do so, poses the first element to the argument I propose at the end of this paragraph, and I would encourage you to stop there and think about it, and what it might mean to you before reading on. Here it is: next to absorbing from others, it is those very others you define yourself against. “I am not like that, and you can see it!” Skin colour, tone and register of language, fashion, and many more less obvious attributes and nuances of being.

So is recognising what they are and you are not who you are? This trace of thought is what is called the process of “Othering”.

In his famous 1978 book “Orientalism”, Edward Said introduces this concept of “Othering” by examining how the West studies “the Orient” – which is a geographically highly problematic realm. Since, what exactly is the orient? A projected space, and an imagined geography, it includes pretty much everything that is not the West. It does not actually exist as a space. Scholarship engaging with the “the Orient” include studies from Hinduism and temple architecture in India, to Persian cooking, to religion wars within Islam – from China to the middle East to Africa, they are made one, and they have exactly one thing in common: They are the “Other”. Edward Said argues that especially following European colonial expansion peaking in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, “Orientalism” and “Othering” are tools to justify occupation and imperial regime. Europeans are seeing these diverse “new”cultures as fundamentally different, and first and foremost: lesser, which is why they need to be taught and colonised, to be made better, and more advanced.

What does this have to do with who you are, you might ask at this point. Well, not only did setting themselves off against the other, “lesser” cultures give the colonising nations self-granted, unlimited power over the “Other”, but it also defined what being European, and later, being Western means. Said argues that Europe was largely defined by the rest of the world, and the ways of interaction of Europeans with it, and not by itself. Without the “Other”, there would be no “us”. You, just as much as myself, carry this kind of thinking with you still. What comes to mind when you think about the terms “civilisation”, or “development”? – Exactly. It has been less than a century since colonies were formally dissolved, and often sad attempts of apology and repayments were made, and the legacy of damage and control in “former” colonies lives on. To break it down further: There would be no you without what you think and judge of others – ‘I am better than they are’ is something we know not to say, but does that mean anything? “Othering” and therefore consciously (if desired and reflected upon, we all know how much purposeful ignorance is out there) setting yourself off does not have to be a bad thing, but it is a huge part of who you are, and has as much to do with the past and what you have learned than what you see and want to be. Acknowledge it, search for it, it happens all the time.

A more contemporary note to illustrate and show you the scope of “Othering” as a tool to forming identity is the War on Terror. In what David Gregory (2004) titles the “colonial present”, the United States of America under President Bush once more formed an enemy, an “Other” and an “us”, which is superior, and meant to bring justice. Reflecting back, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is in pieces, thousands of civilians dead, and countries invaded which had nothing to do with the attach on New Yorks World Trade Center in 2001. Who is the “Other” here, and that this “Other” is not one uniform enemy, but people with different beliefs and cultures and customs, is a concept once more ignored, and all made equal and stomped to the ground. The “Other”, the lesser – Islam?

I have a good hook, but I do not have a stomping end. I just want you, and me, to think more about what we absorb, and what we make of others: Because that is ultimately what makes you you.