Among the most pressing issues of the 21st century, “othering” and “belonging” have become common themes. These are part of the broader issues of nations and nationalism, and homogeneous identities which strive to create an “us” against “them” mentality. They require a sense of “separateness” through which our “belonging” is defined.
Who is “the other” against which almost everything in our lives is defined? This “othering”, which results in the exclusion of “others” from the realm of “us”, happens through thought control and official ideologies, policies, rules, laws and culture.
“We”, of course, have superior values and worth than the “others”, who are lesser beings with fewer rights and stand to be discriminated against by “us”. As Staszak explains, “othering” takes place through stereotypes and with a sort of reassurance “that serves to comfort the ‘Self’ in its feeling of superiority.”
The “other” is everything we don’t understand or do not want to understand. The “other” is different, although everyone is different; nobody is exactly the same as anyone else. Nevertheless, society often sets out to define the collective and ignore the individual. The former seeks to limit human experience by grouping humans and thus guiding our choices, and influencing our thinking and behaviour; in the process, the “other” is made the scapegoat for all of the problems and ills faced by the “self”, and provides justification for a controlled and rigid society.
Since the New Zealand terrorist attacks, I have been thinking about what it means to be the “other” and why our world is so divided. The summary of my recent research is that we live in a highly politicised world, where everything is part of a political project, from the food we eat to the choices we make; the education we receive to the words we speak. Our perceptions of people around us are also based on these politically charged ideas.
What I see around me are human beings reduced to categories, labels and stereotypes. This is what I call the branding of humanity.
Globally, we can find numerous frameworks of “otherness” which have created structural differences, and structural expressions of “othering”. Examples of structural “othering” include the locking-up of disabled people and labelling them as dangerous; having separate queues for people of different nationalities; having entrances to public spaces based on racial, economic and gender groupings.
We live in a world full of paradoxes. Othering has increased in tandem with global diversity as a reality and a concept. However, are people really embracing diversity? We create labels that reinforce disconnections; such labels include race, language, colour and disability. The reality is that we are all connected in one way or another, but how can we learn to celebrate this when everything around is designed to teach us the opposite?
This concept of “otherness” is being instilled in people’s mentality from a young age through institutions of learning like schools, households, museums and public spaces. In addition to this, there are everyday reminders of what divides us rather than what unites us. These can vary from TV commercials to social media campaigns, advertising hoardings, language constructs and so on. The “othering” can also be imposed on people supposedly the same culture as divisions exist on the margins of social class, family names, languages, race and ethnicity.
Moving on to global trends of “othering”, the political, social and economic process has contributed to the creation of “defensive identities”. We are now witnessing a global rise in the “defensive us” against the threat of the “other”.
This whole notion of the “defensive us” is built around the concept of identities being under threat by the “others”, including immigrants or other marginalised groups. We have to ask if this really is a threat or just an illusion, and who is creating it. Similarly, we have to acknowledge that culture and traditions are fluid human constructs. Why then, do we have polarised identities, and to what extent do we realise that these are all part of political projects and agendas, as well as ideologies?
Recently, there have been a few cases which have demonstrated the strength of “othering” and the kind of violent and divided societies it can create. Strong anti-immigrant feeling and white supremacist ideology have been on the rise since Donald Trump’s election as US President in late 2016, resulting in attacks against people of colour and different religions. Trump’s white supremacist and racist attitude have contributed to the rise of movements like “Black Lives Matter” in response to systemic racism against black people, particularly African Americans. The resistance movement declares their right to belong, but also reinforces the fact that our lives are in many ways defined structures, yet we are not situated within the structures in the same ways.
Another example of racist “othering” of people of colour is the case of Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim, Somali American woman to be elected to the US Congress. She has been subject to racist attacks due to her comments about Israel, and was pressured to apologise; Trump even suggested that she should resign simply for voicing her opinion.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, the Australian terrorist published an anti-Muslim manifesto explaining his ideology and praising Trump’s white supremacist approach to the “renewal of white identity”. He also clearly “othered” Muslim migrants and Islam itself, blaming it for the ills of the West. It was this ideological “othering” which demonised Muslim in this man’s eyes and led to him to shoot and kill innocent civilians.
In the Gulf, a prime example of “othering” and demonising the “other” is Safa Al-Hashem, the only female member elected to the Kuwaiti parliament consecutively since Kuwaiti women gained the right to vote in 2005. Al Hashem responded angrily when Mohammed Hayef MP refused to sit next to her because of his religious beliefs that do not permit him to sit next to a woman wearing perfume. He had “othered” her for being a woman.
However, Al-Hashem herself has adopted an even more aggressive “othering” approach with her racist, almost dehumanising remarks about expatriates in Kuwait. She has called unapologetically for a tax on “expats for the air they breathe in Kuwait and for walking on the streets.” Expatriates constitute 70 per cent of Kuwait’s population, and yet she made the outrageous claim that they have contributed nothing positive to its society, The fact that she continues to be popular and represents a positive image of Kuwaiti women in politics suggests that there is a degree of tolerance for such an ideology, and that it might even be on the way to being popular.
Her attitude raises critical questions on the demographics and future trends within Gulf society. Ideologies have a pronounced impact on societies and can either be used for creating cohesive communities or conflict and divisions. All such incidents may have occurred in different parts of the world, but they have one thing in common; the construction of the “other” as less of a human and less deserving of the right to life than the “self”.
How can we move towards creating a more peaceful world built on collaboration, respect, mutual understanding, kindness and peace if extremist ideologies based on “othering” are constantly being created and tolerated globally? If we are not going to take racist, extremist ideologies seriously and engage actively in tackling their root causes, then can we really be surprised when they result in terrorist attacks such as the Christchurch mosque attacks?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.