Psychological Concepts Of “The Other :”
Embracing The Compass Of The Self
Common Bond Institute
International Humanistic Psychology Association
The Psychology of Terrorism
Edited by Chris Stout
The Other often conjures up images of strange faces, practices, and beliefs, usually in faraway places. At the same time that it challenges our understanding, our sense of normalcy, and at times our sense of security, it is a label we all share.
How we experience the sense of belonging or the sense of alienation, and how we envision what the word “Ourselves” and the word “Others” means to us, sets the frame and context for everything else we encounter in our relationships with all those who make up the rest of the world. All are contingent on first identifying and defining these concepts in our individual realities, and then coalescing them into a shared reality. So it is helpful to exam how it is that we as individuals begin this process.
Particularly given this time of rising turmoil around the world, it is vital that there be a larger, fundamentally inclusive public dialogue – on a global level – that deeply explores this process to share our combined wisdom and pieces of the solution puzzle, just as we share the human dilemma.
The events of the last few years underline for most an intense need to understand just what is going on in a world suddenly gone mad; and for some in regions of long term conflict, simply more mad. We are pressed to be more aware; to pay more attention; to be more vigilant. But the telling question is: for what purpose? Is it for the purpose of understanding root causes of conflict and animosity between segments of the entire global community? Or is it simply watching out for “the evil ones,” and the next attack? For each of us, the next steps are shaped by our answers, with very different implications for the future.
At times like this, when the threat of terrorism and claims of seemingly irreconcilable clashes of cultures dominate our attention, it can be missed that similar discord based on conflicting views of each other, and even the essence of human nature, has plagued humankind since it’s beginnings. For the most part, any temporary outcomes to such past clashes have not been determined by the strength of a “right” reality, but instead by the military and economic “might” of one of the parties. While this may speak to the value of one physical or economic strength over another, it does little if anything in comparing the value of ideas or perspectives of particular groups.
No major collision of world views was decided by one side suddenly seeing the “truth” of the other. In fact, most conflicts have done little if anything to settle such arguments long after the encounter has ended. Most often they have simply gone underground and made things worse. The temporary nature of physical dominance in human history, unfortunately, provides many new opportunities for “revisiting” disagreements, feeding a perpetual cycle of retribution, oppression, violence, and victimization.
To understand today’s chronic dilemmas in global relationships and find constructive answers for transforming them that can be endorsed by all, it is essential to use more than shortsighted vision and knee-jerk response, and to instead look deeper into the larger, underlying dynamics of how it is we form ideas and perceptions of each other.
The concept of “The Other” is probably one of the most elemental and enduring aspects of human interactions. As a means of distinguishing who is “not us,” and so who “we “are, it provides us with an invaluable model of our separate identity and the foundation for our experience of reality. Like the related process of stereotyping, it helps bring order to our lives by routinely sorting and categorizing a multitude of possibilities that flood our daily life into simpler, more manageable clusters. Like many habitual processes, it is also allocated to a less than fully conscious state.
As a mechanism, it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Judgments in terms of being good or bad, healthy or harmful, come only from examining how it is put to use through our interactions with the rest of the “selves” we coexist with in the world – i.e. our behaviors. Since this is a highly subjective, psychological process, judgment of behavior requires objective, universal standards to be valid.
A problem comes up when we confuse comparisons of opposite and conflicting absolutes – such as good and evil, right and wrong, superior and inferior, civilized and uncivilized, with the group identities of “us” and “them.” These kinds of misguided comparisons can lead to the failure of reason and set the stage for serious mistakes and injustices. We have seen this played out time and time again throughout our history.
The Other as a Process
We are faced with this concept of the Other every day. However, instead of it being an actual and specific entity, the Other can better be understood as an expression of a fundamental psychological process that helps us get our bearings and make sense of ourselves within the context of the world we live in. It is a reference point. If we know where North is, we know where South, East, and West are.
The earliest example of this occurs as very young children. We discover that our parents, and through them the world, are not just extensions of ourselves but instead separate and distinct human beings with separate needs, preferences, and characteristics. Paradoxically, at its beginnings, then, the Other is made up of those closest and most available to us — our parents, siblings, and family. From there we continue on in our quest to define what is “US” and what is “not US;” generalizing and becoming increasingly more sophisticated in how we conceive of and relate to the Other, all the while moving toward asserting our own authentic identity. If there is an “Other,” by definition then there must be a “We,” and visa versa.
Life expands then in quantum leaps and we struggle to make sense of this new, shifting reality, as other strangers enter into what is now rapidly becoming a shared existence. We begin to attach meaning to this phenomenon, and from those meanings come beliefs and belief systems connected to ourselves, others, and the world. As we form core group identities with those closest and most familiar to us in contrast to an escalating array of everyone else, our parents, family, community, and society greatly influence these belief systems. The qualitative nature of those beliefs defines the context for what we can expect of new Others in general.
When our beliefs are based on a premise of security and confidence, these beliefs provide a receptive context for new experiences of others, and an appreciation for diversity in these strangers. This stance serves us well in creating and maintaining healthy, cooperative, and mutually valuing relationships with new people we encounter who are different than us.
When there is a pervasive insecurity at the core of our belief, this gets reflected onto new and potential others, especially those less predictable and less familiar to our life experience. From this stance, being “not like us,” “different,” or “an outsider,” is seen as less than desirable or comfortable, and there is a tendency to distance ourselves and avoid forming relationships.
When beliefs are strongly fear based, this heightened sense of vulnerability leads to an excessive, discriminating vigilance for potential danger. Anything deviating from the norm carries a high degree of potential risk or threat that can promote resistance, opposition, and even aggression. In it’s extreme cases, fear-based beliefs can be expressed in striking out through violence and war.
A good deal more can be said about the formation, maintenance, and modification of both positive and negative belief systems. However for the purposes here I would like to simply highlight the powerful, energetic link between interpreted meanings of profound life experiences, and the primary needs associated with them. The strength of the link is based on a perceived maximum benefit to or protection of those vital needs that is provided by the attached meaning.
Once this bond occurs, an internal drive kicks in to maintain, perpetuate, and protect the belief against threats to it’s validity. New information from outside is filtered and molded by a highly subjective screen that tends to match the presumptions of the belief. In extreme cases this can create a nearly closed system. Any forced challenge to the belief from the outside is met with similar resistance.
An example of this is the basic need for acceptance coupled with early painful rejection by important primary figures, forming a belief that one is not acceptable and resulting in self-defeating behaviors intended to avoid being exposed to the pain of future rejections. In this case, forcing a person into a situation where there is even high probability for acceptance is resisted by them as too threatening to a defensive belief that is now heavily relied on for the more vital purpose of avoiding the expected rejection at all cost.
A belief system is vulnerable, however, to internal dissonance when conflicting information is allowed into the internal database of facts that forms it’s foundation. When there is the presence of contradicting facts at this deep level – especially when it involves absolute beliefs, in order to reduce internal dissonance and maintain harmony and stability, the person is forced to revisit the original meaning and go through the process of making sense of it again, incorporating new information.
It is through this opportunity to reevaluate and update old, entrenched negative beliefs that they can be modified and re-framed in a more positive, healthy context. The assumption, of course, is that there is a powerful, natural drive toward internal harmony, and that the character of this harmony is one of health and “goodness.” This will be further addressed later.
A strong negative belief – especially an absolute one, must be continually fed to be sustained. It demands repeated confirmation and vigilance in seeking out proof around us, as well as agreement with others with whom we identify. If there is either a dwindling of proof, or a difficult-to-dismiss contradiction , we experience some degree of uncertainty. Even if we feel 90% certain of an absolute, we cannot avoid feeling the 10% of doubt. It is this crack in the door of our negative beliefs that offers the most hope for change and healing.
The focus in healing negative belief systems, then, is on the resistance to allowing new and accurate information into an individual’s deep experience, where it can be compared on a more equal and balanced level with the archive of data supporting the negative belief. It is important to keep in mind that compelling negative beliefs are usually attached to powerful, defensive emotions and energy, sometimes literally life and death survival. Full frontal assaults on these beliefs invariably fall into the trap of feeding them, as in using force against a force field – the field draws from the very energy expended to confront and eliminate it. Paradoxically, in the process of resisting attack the subjective screen may tighten further to distort and ward off threatening contradictory facts from the outside. In some cases, fear and anger attached to negative absolutes may even trigger aggression.
What is more effective and lasting in the long run is to introduce a more non-threatening, subtle exposure to new facts that can be digested and absorbed, with less internal chaos. This discreet flow of new information has the same effect of challenging and eroding the negative belief as it accumulates. However, it also has the advantage of the person being more in control of the process, and so not activating a defensive stance. The key, then, is to methodically let truth seep in, to shift the balance of proof with a minimum of threat or force, and for a healthy dissonance to set in. As the internal scale begins to equalize and an individual senses a more conscious choice of meaning attached to their primary needs in the present, the natural drive toward health and harmony is allowed to be expressed through their experience of also remaining in control of the process to create a new, more positive subjective reality.
Container -vs- Content
To further visualize this dynamic, I would like to offer a metaphor of the Other as both a vessel and the content of that vessel.
As a container or vessel, the Other is remarkably stable, durable, and active. Since it’s purpose is not time or situation limited, but part of an ongoing, psychological process, it is fixed. At the same time, as the particular content or occupant of this vessel it is just as remarkably changeable, tenuous, and situational – even interchangeable to the point of being contradictory.
As a container, if the current content alters significantly, or even ceases to exist, the container persists in functioning by simply finding another, more workable occupant, and replacing it. The character of the vessel (identification) goes unchanged, while the character of the content (what is identified) is always in various stages of flux. When a person is placed in the vessel, differences are emphasized and inflated, while likenesses are minimized or denied. When the person is removed, the reverse process occurs, to return the person to a neutral to positive standing with us. The criteria is highly fluid and relative, adjusting up or down depending on the circumstances.
There are examples throughout our history of an Other transforming to become, not just a “non-Other”, but a “We.” On a global level, some recent examples include: the WW II and post-WW II relationships of Germany, Japan, and Italy with the US, England, France, and Russia. A more recent example is the relationship between the Former Soviet Union and the West. Each society has been included in their counterpart’s vessel of the Other, typifying the most extreme characterizations of evil, immorality, and certainly treacherous “enemy.”
In current times, these same groups see each other as allies and friends – even included in the core of “US” in a new global community. On an everyday basis the average American is comfortable with the Japanese language appearing frequently in electronic and automotive literature, and even on various components of the most commonly used technology in our homes. At the time of Pearl Harbor in the 1940’s, this would have conjured up images of an evil and barbaric alien.
The dream of a European Union, with its single shared economy and 1-person leadership rotating seamlessly between centuries of historic enemies – who at various times sought to achieve their own version of this through iron-fisted domination of the entire continent and even world, would have been viewed as the ultimate nightmare during this same period
And then there is the image of John F. Kennedy, standing before cheering crowds at the Berlin Wall, in support of Germans occupied by the Soviet Union, declaring: “I am a Berliner.”
Old movies depicting nefarious stereotypes of these societies are now considered politically incorrect, and even embarrassing. Of course, it should be noted these have been replaced with new “Other-depicting” movies that repeat the same extremist dynamics of demonizing and dehumanizing entire groups of people, based on common characteristics like ethnicity, religion, culture, and nationality (i.e. where they happen to be born).
Although these particular WW II and Cold War era countries no longer hold the “Enemy identity” with each other (i.e. they are not the current “occupants”), each continues to maintain and operate a vigorous “vessel” of The Other. And ironically, a great deal of the current content of these vessels is the same (i.e. they share current adversaries).
A more dramatic example of the Other’s situational pliability as an entity, and it’s lack of universal or stable criteria, is from my own childhood; one that many might relate to.
I remember frequent visits to movie theaters to see “alien invasion” movies. They were scary, exciting, and seemed to tap into all the right fears that my friends and I shared. A common scenario, which struck me as an astonishing shift even then, was the immediate uniting of all the world against a larger, even “more” alien “Other.” The image of an Other, so different and unknown to us that it literally went off the charts, relegated all human differences on all levels to less than trivial. Any semblance of adversity, competition, or suspicion between the “people of Earth” was mutually dropped with such obvious and logical ease it was almost unnecessary to explain it in the plot. It just made simple, uncomplicated sense, to both the characters in the movie, and the viewers in the audience. In some stories other species were even included. “US” became defined as simply all living beings on this planet.
I recall sharing a moment of exuberance with all those in the theater as there was only one “US” on Earth. And I have to admit to feeling a bit disoriented when the trance state quickly receded, as we all walked out of the theater and into the newly re-established “reality.” This brief shift in paradigm, that allows us to experience a deep and, for the moment, highly logical sense of belonging to each other, is not an uncommon phenomenon. In therapy, we call such moments breakthroughs and peak experiences; in spiritual and philosophical traditions – enlightenment. Yet, we can tend to relegate this to fantasy and what is “unreal;” not unlike the way our negative belief systems screen out contradicting data. The question is: which is trance, and which is real?
If what appear to be enormous, irreconcilable differences in one moment, shrink to less than insignificant in the face of a much larger difference, how can we make absolute life decisions based on them? If a perception of Other is fear based – and so to a great degree distorted, and if the content identity of that vessel at any given time can so easily and radically switch, what are the implications of categorical, far-reaching, and irreversible actions toward those who happen to simply be the most current occupants of the vessel?
Complicating Factors Contributing to Destructive Use
An important question this begs is: how does a neutral human development process so frequently results in destructive consequences? Part of the answer may lie with several compounding factors.
1) The Subconscious Quality Of The Experience
This process operates for the most part outside our clear awareness at a subconscious level. As a result, it is highly vulnerable to influences that may or may not be in our awareness. Because we cannot adequately monitor these influences this easily allows for serious distortions in how we identify and characterize others. If these distorted and incorrect perceptions are accepted as reality, unquestioned, and acted on, our actions will likely be equally distorted and incorrect. In extreme cases, these actions can be experienced as unjust, cruel, and inhumane. As long as this process remains outside our awareness mistakes based on distortions can be repeated to the detriment of others and ourselves. When we collectively share distortions there is the potential for even more harm. Among ten key propositions listed in research findings reported by Willis Harman in a 1984 article is the statement that: “Unconscious beliefs held collectively are the most fundamental cause of the global dilemmas that beset the world, and thus a major contributor to non-peace.”
2) Self Defensiveness
[a] Inner Conflict: Denial To Avoid Psychic Pain
After the fact, individuals who “know” themselves to be basically good and just can find it intolerable to wrestle with the self-blame and guilt of having done something wrong and unjust. To reduce inner conflict and threat to our self-esteem it is often easier to deny the reality of these actions or, if this is not possible, to justify or minimize their effect on others, and avoid responsibility. Unfortunately, the price of short-term relief from this psychic distress allows us to continually repeat our mistakes.
[b] Conflict With The Outside: Denial To Avoid Blame, Shame, And Judgment
If we tend to define our world in absolutes, such as good and evil, there is little room for admitting and correcting our own wrongs. This is further compounded when there is competition for affixing blame and evil intent between groups who identify each as the Other. Within these “one of us must be wrong” adversarial relationships, and because we carry a “known true sense” of our own basic goodness, our rational balance in perspective can be seriously compromised and distorted. Reasonable degrees along a continuum of constructive or “right” actions on one end and destructive or “wrong” actions on the other are denied, and we can feel compelled to protect ourselves against all odds from losing ground and having our mistakes used to unfairly prove our ultimate “wrongness.”
To maintain validity as the “good guys” in a conflict, there is pressure to defend against any accusations to the contrary, even those we may know to be true to at least some extent, and to instead prove the Other worse by comparison. As the opposing accuser focuses on and even exaggerates our wrongs, we deny, minimize, or dismiss the same as fallacy, insignificant, excusable, or even righteous.
Again, the price of successfully avoiding responsibility and the perception of losing out in the short term, allows us a blind eye to repeating mistakes that are contrary to our own self image, as well as how we are viewed by others. A resulting irony is that this eventually ensures all sides increasingly get to be some degree of wrong.
3) Self Fulfilling Prophesy And Victim Identity
A tragic quality of acting on distorted, negative stereotypes, is that it continually creates a factual history of proof on all sides of the wrongness of the perpetrating Other and the rightness of the victimized US, and so actively supports the mutually exclusive negative belief systems of all parties.
After awhile, “all sides” have a body of concrete and real grievances that is more and more convincing of their correct stance and view of the Other, as well as their justification in responding to unjust wrongs. Retaliation, retribution, and revenge are superimposed onto assaults and offensives, until there is no discernable beginning, no end; only competing blame and accusations of real actions and real losses that feed the destructive cycle.
Taking on the identity of “victim” places us in the role of someone “wronged,” who deserves justice, and allows for a self-righteous perspective that can eventually rationalize inhumane treatment of others identified as perpetrators of our victimization. There are examples in psychotherapy of this same paradoxical dynamic of individuals who were past victims themselves, becoming perpetrators. On a societal level, this is less studied, and for our own self interest needs to be explored more deeply.
If we select any society or culture in recent history that has been identified as a perpetrator against another (and by this I exclude some absolute dictators whose individual motives may not represent the population), invariably that group carries a deeply held myth of itself as victim, martyr, or even champion of a higher good – sometimes even the good of all.
Bosnians and Kosovars point to crimes against humanity perpetrated on them in the recent Balkan wars that ended the last century; Serbs point to their massacre as defenders of Europe by Eastern invaders generations earlier. Northern Irish Catholics point to centuries of domination by the British and subsequent decades of oppression by a permanently gerrymandered majority Protestant population primarily transplanted from England and Scotland. Northern Irish Unionist point to the threat of “Home Rule” tyranny and being besieged by a vast and hostile Catholic population in a united Ireland. Palestinians point to the loss of their homeland and a devalued daily life of oppression and trauma; Jews point to the pogroms of Russia and Nazi concentration camps. Americans point to Pearl Harbor and most recently the tragedy of Sept. 11th; Iranians point to a reign of terror by a despotic Shah twice placed in power against a fledgling democratic society by a Western government intent on maintaining it’s oil supply.
And more recently we see the makings of new scenarios of mutual mounting tragedies and competing truths in Iraq, Sudan, Rwanda, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, to name only a few. The list goes on and there appears to be no lack of tragic cultural myths in the world community – myths that are clung to often as an act of loyalty to self and community, and of honoring and validating the fundamental value and goodness of our identity.
A society tends to sees itself as inherently good and just, with little tolerance for an immoral opinion of itself. If it engages in hostile or oppressive behavior toward others, it is usually linked, correctly or incorrectly, to past wrongs it has experienced at the hands of those it is attacking, or by another community this group somehow represents. Among the most common wrongs suffered and embedded, are physical, psychological, and emotional injuries. It is fair to say that such unresolved, communal wounds are one of the most – if not the most – powerful fuels of war and violence between groups. They also contribute the most to creating and validating negative stereotypes.
Entire cultures can take on the identity of tragic victim, and unwittingly use this energy of fear to become the perpetrators. When two groups in conflict each bear an obsessive, deeply imbedded ethos of “victim,” there is the greatest danger of blind, brutal treatment toward a dehumanized and demonized “Other.” Absolute wrongness allows for absolute righteousness. And inhumane treatment allows for inhumane treatment in the guise of just retribution toward evil doers.
4) Exploitation And Manipulation
This dilemma is complicated even more when individuals or special interest groups intentionally decide to exploit it for their own particular purposes. Manipulation may be by individuals, small groups, or by larger groups with access to important institutions, such as the media. A look at the long history of institutional propaganda offers many examples of media manipulation.
Polarization is created or fueled for self-gain by these exploiting parties, often to the detriment of the very “US” group they are attempting to incite. The motivations can vary, including seeking political, financial, or power gain, justification and support for antisocial behaviors, or personal revenge.
Those who engage in terror, whether lone individuals like Timothy McVeigh, small renegade groups, large networks, or even government’s, rely on fanning the flames of “enemy” to build support for their actions. If they are successful in getting an opposing group, such as the United States government, to engage in the same practices of demonizing and dehumanizing innocent groups somehow associated with these terrorists – no matter how marginally, and particularly to unilaterally use violence and oppression against them, the terrorists succeed in producing new and intense “truths” that can actually validate belief in the presence of an evil, oppressing Other.
For example: retaliatory violence that, within it’s very design, assumes “collateral damage” (i.e. death and injury of innocent victims) in the community of “the Other” is necessary and acceptable in protection of a more valued “US,” can galvanize portions of the world on a scale terrorists are unable to achieve in any other way.
The sad result is an escalating of the malevolent Other on both sides. A further result, is creating a powerful inducement, within another generation of alienated and newly victimized individuals, to join the ranks of what these same terrorists conveniently portray as “freedom fighters.” The lines blur for the average person in societies on the receiving end of violence and oppression in their desperate daily lives. The formula of fear, loss, despair, and a deep victim identity can easily mislead to endorsing and even embracing violence, as both a cathartic expression of their pain and rage, and the only seemingly viable means of achieving security and justice.
As one illustration in recent times, some cunning terrorists have benefited from and relied on the West’s xenophobia and ignorance of Islam – as well as the ignorance of some minorities within Muslim communities who independently know little of the faith, and instead rely on interpretations by biased others. These terrorists have exploited this ignorance by deceptively shrouding themselves in the labels of Islam and Muslim – even to the point of using these words as part of their group names, while operating in complete opposition to it’s beliefs. The fact that their actions are clearly “un-Islamic” is totally missed, as is the Orwellian double-speak.
The unfortunate corresponding use of negative stereotypes and divisive, destructive labels, such as “crusade”, “evil Islamic terrorists,” and “Islamoterrorism” by US government leaders and a sensationalizing media, only serve to play into a polarizing game of the terrorists. At some point, to an outside observer, the rhetoric on both sides sounds remarkably similar, whether it be from an Al Qaeda leader or a US president.
In the wake of the September 11th attack on the United States there is currently a greater focus on this particular situation, but these kinds of manipulation dynamics are not new, and have a long history that spans many centuries, many places, and many Others.
Beginnings Of Solutions:
A more intense, multidisciplinary, and cross-cultural exploration of these dynamics is needed. I stress the multicultural perspective in particular since what we are dealing with here is highly subjective, and any one cultural view necessarily carries with it a certain amount of biased baggage. By helping each other see our respective tinted lenses and blind spots we can better gain insight into the multi-faceted nature of this process, and into practical solutions for transforming it’s misuse in our relationships. To further promote this I would like to offer some beginnings of solutions.
1) Acknowledging and Accepting Our Human Process
The most consistent trait of The Other as a vessel is that it exists for a purpose beyond, and even independent, from any identified “characteristics” of a particular group contained in it at any given time. It is a function in itself that operates as a point of reference for our self-definition. It exists because the holder of the vessel exists.
The key component of any solution for problems resulting from it’s misuse, then, must be our unconditional, even compassionate acknowledgement and acceptance of this fundamental aspect of our human psyche. Only then can we expect to be in conscious control of how it affects our behavior toward others in the world.
There needs to be, in fact, an appreciation for the essential task it accomplishes in helping make sense of who we are in relation to the rest of reality. Without it we would certainly flounder in our journey to define ourselves in a vast universe, and to deny it unnecessarily places us at odds not only with others, but with ourselves. Denying it, in fact, is the crux of the problem.
In our humanness, as long as we experience an unconscious fear of the unknown, and some degree of stress, insecurity, and vulnerability in our psyche, there is the likelihood of some degree of discrimination and intolerance in our thoughts of others. This is simply part of our human imperfection.
It is not just impractical to expect we can totally eliminate these kinds of thoughts; it is detrimental. To demand it dooms us to failure, self-condemnation, and denial, and undermines our contact with and control over our human process.
Just as we may periodically experience other uncomfortable impulses, or bad thoughts, within our inner subjective world that are in direct opposition to what we actually intend to do in the outer world, there are times when we can and do internally judge others in less than fair or unbiased ways. These are sometimes clustered into what can be called prejudices. Prejudice here is defined as a negative opinion of a person’s qualities and intentions based on a lack of direct, specific knowledge – or a not knowing, and relying instead on fear-based, group stereotypes and illogical, overly generalized assumptions.
When this process goes unacknowledged it can operate outside the peripheral vision of our awareness and influence our actions without our knowing. To admit, and even forgive ourselves for these simply human failings allows us to then consciously take responsibility for monitoring and being in control of how this is reflected in our actual treatment of others in the real world. It also allows for empathy and compassion. Awareness forces us to see the uncompromised connection between our purposeful actions and our “known” sense of goodness and esteem, to transcend any prejudice and bias.
This is an important state of consciousness. For in the final analysis, the true reflection of our integrity and “goodness” as a person rests on the “knowing intent” of expressing fundamentally human characteristics, especially when it impacts on the lives of others.
2) Sensitizing and Familiarizing
If an underlying assumption is that the unknown Other is suspect and to be feared, it can seem wise to keep a safe distance. At the same time, to accurately know where safety is we need to know where this unknown is and where it is not. Stereotypical tools help to quickly locate this danger. Unfortunately, putting distance between US and the Unknown prevents us from learning anything directly about the members of this group. As a result, the very distorted tools we use to identify danger become the only known characteristics of the Other.
Perceptions of irreconcilable differences and adversity come from an inability to personally validate the other person’s experience. Sensitivity training is not so much for the purpose of simply discovering and squelching bad or politically incorrect habits in relating with others, but to allow us a 1st hand glimpse of our behavior on the receiving end — a personal experience of what it is like to be the objectified and estranged Other, and especially one we have created ourselves. Once this is truly achieved we naturally adapt our actions toward healthier, more compassionate treatment of others. There is obvious truth to clichés like “walk a mile in my shoes;” which is why they are clichés.
Equally important, is to experience ourselves as valuable, good, and right, at the same time that someone quite different from us can be equally valuable, good, and right. The opportunity for both to be true and mutually inclusive, without the need to define our positive identity through contrast with a negative of the Other, frees us from a lie that says: “one of us must be wrong for the other to be right.”
Once this is accomplished, “common wisdom” kicks in, and there is a natural moderation in behavior based on understanding the context and impact of our actions toward others. At that point, how we treat others becomes more of a known indication and even support of our own self worth, respect, and sense of goodness.
Direct personal familiarity is an obvious and natural way to remove barriers and increase understanding. When understanding increases, stereotypical assumptions and generalities decrease. Moving from the unknown, strange, and mysterious to the known, recognized, and predictable reduces anxiety and opens us to someone else’s experience. Establishing a common base of understanding also establishes a common sense of security and allows us to appreciate and even savor diversity. As the unknown shrinks we feel increasingly safer, more optimistic, and at ease.
This does not require, however, that what becomes known must be the “same” as us; just that it is “familiar.” A mistake often assumed is that we must “US-ize” the world to make it more and more like “US” than “Them.” The question that invariably comes up with this kind of thinking is who’s “US” does this refer to? Any solution that involves eliminating the Other by absorbing it is unrealistic, and for those identified as the Other, on a psychic level it can be viewed as a kind of genocide. We do not have to look far to see powerful reactions to attempts to US-ize the world culture through Western commercial influence. The term “McDonaldizing” is a bitter one in most regions of the world, symbolizing an economic high-jacking of the local social/cultural identity.
In the case of the US and Western Europe, the Other happens to compose the vast majority of the world and the percentage is only rising. Not only is it irrational that the West attempt to offer itself as the most appropriate model of the global community, when it is such a minority; it is irrational that any particular culture do this.
A group maintains it’s sense of well being and healthy balance with other groups when the primary decisions regarding it’s development and evolution are determined from within, not when it is pressured from outside – and particularly where the perceived motivation is to supplant it’s identity with another’s. Again, on a psychic level, such imposed transformation can be experienced as invasion, and a marginalizing of members within their own group as well as the world at large.
A more natural and acceptable alternative is actively cultivating a positive concept of Otherness. A “positive Otherness” allows for a higher tolerance and appreciation for diversity, for more inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, for celebrating great variety in human expression without diminishing or threatening our deep sense of belonging at the most basic level of our humanity.
Of course, there is a serious conflict if this basic, binding “core” is held to be sinful or evil (as in original sin) -vs- good, benevolent, and trustworthy. If it is the former, then we have little basis for our “belonging” except in opposition to and exclusion of others we “do not” belong to. The combination of the psychological process of the Other and an assumption of basic sin or evil in humans sets the stage for an antagonistic, no-win relationship between all of humankind; just as the combination of a compass and an assumption of North as basically evil sets the stage for continually validating the presence of evil at every turn. It is hard to imagine peace on earth and goodwill toward all within such a view of reality.
3) Universal Standards Of Behavior
There already exists a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which I am happy to say may be expanded on in the near future. To begin with, this needs to be committed to globally, built on, and followed by all. This is a true opportunity for leaders of the world to lead. In addition to this declaration, though, something more radical is called for. There needs to be a commitment to new universal standards – to a Universal Declaration of Basic Human “Worth,” and Basic Human “Goodness.”
Such a concept can be radical for many reasons, not the least being some religious interpretations of basic human nature. However, I propose that without this new standard we will continually see the wrong actions of individuals used as indictments of entire groups of innocent people. This is not only unjust, it is inefficient and contrary to the overall good; because it takes the focus and responsibility for specific actions off the individual who knowingly perpetrates them (where it belongs), and puts it on the group. By doing this it prevents that same group from itself holding the individual accountable for acts against society according to it’s own appropriate standards. It effectively disables the natural functions of the group to correctly regulate itself and maintain it’s wholesome moral character.
When it is guilt by association, proximity, appearance, or simply birth, it becomes an impossible quagmire, impossible to resolve. Any attempt by the accused group to avoid conflict results in an absurd Catch 22 that traps everyone involved.
— In the short term of this Catch 22, innocents of this group must accept guilt and punishment, and place themselves at risk. The natural healthy forces within a group to monitor and control unhealthy, destructive, and antisocial behavior toward others are more than just seriously compromised, they are eliminated. This is because the group is forced to unite in self defense against an outside threat “to them all.” The siege mentality becomes predominant. Under these circumstances the mind-set that “a house under attack cannot be divided” is a straightforward and certainly reasonable rule to say the least. A house under attack does not have time or possibility to disagree or censure its members.
It would take extraordinary courage, inner strength, and fortitude – let alone a willingness for tremendous risk taking – to stand up and side with the opponent group on principle. Yet when this siege mentality is created we can often miss the obvious logic and see this behavior as complicit evidence of group guilt. If the group is then condemned, humiliated, and threatened on the world stage, this only galvanizes and complicates things further.
— In the long term of this Catch 22, innocents of this group must deny reality and create an ongoing delusion of guilt in order to satisfy the opposing group of Others. i.e., the group must agree to collectively go “insane.” To do this they must also agree to be less valuable, less good, and self hating.
To succeed at this would result in their becoming culturally, psychologically, morally, and spiritually bankrupt.
Regardless of one’s spiritual or philosophical leanings, a core premise contributing to the need to identify evil in others is the belief that humans are fundamentally sinful or evil. From some religious perspectives, the “saving grace” is in divine intervention to correct this. It is no wonder, then, that those seen “outside” this grace (i.e. non-believers) are experienced as suspect and carrying the highest potential for evil in the world. Further, if they are perceived as less good, less chosen, and by that less valued in God’s eyes, we can feel absolved in judging them as such ourselves.
What is missed here is that endorsing such a simplistic view, of the world being divided between essentially Satan’s people and God’s people goes both ways; and under such a view we can not avoid also finding ourselves labeled as the most available approximation of evil by another religious dogma. From this world view, if untempered evil exists in those not in community with believers (i.e. US), it becomes important to be vigilant of this danger. If it is not easily identified or found then it becomes important to be more vigilant; to look harder, until it is, indeed, found. Then, of course, there is the question of what to do about it once we find it.
It may be a radical idea that if we agree evil exists in and of itself in the hearts of all humans, rather than being created by acts of “ungood” or “emptiness of good,” then we are compelled to look for it – rarely within ourselves, and most often in others. If fear of this evil unknown and the alien is at the source of justified acts of violence and oppression against others, then perhaps a case is made for creating our own evil in the world – among ourselves – by demonizing the Other. As Pogo has said: “We have met the enemy, and it is us”
I propose we consider what it would look like if there were no evil groups, societies, cultures, religions, races, nations, etc.; but rather a potential for evil actions (better termed “cruel” actions) by individuals. That we judge the actions of individuals as good or bad, and that we hold the individuals who perpetrate them accountable.
Among the basic universal rules that might be proposed as part of a universal declaration, the following affirmations could logically be included:
- All life is equally valuable and sacred. No innocent life can be part of a plan for “collateral damage.”
- People are essentially good and worthy.
- Actions are judged good or bad, right or wrong, constructive or destructive
- People are individually responsible for their actions and behavior; and blame can only be laid on those individuals knowingly and purposely involved in perpetrating an act.
- No one can be “born” into guilt, or guilty by association of race, culture, society, spiritual belief, gender, family, location, etc.
4) Eliminating Justified Violence
Universal standards of humane and inhumane treatment allow the best opportunity for common, worldwide endorsement and support.
A simple, uncomplicated standard is that an act of violence, oppression, and humiliation, is an act of violence, oppression, and humiliation…no matter who does it. This removes the slippery slope of “just wars,” “justified retribution,” and the objectified, self-absolving, and inhumane concept of “collateral damage.” If this is not addressed, then:
- One group’s violence and terror – is another’s righteous defense.
- One group’s terrorist – is another’s patriot, hero, freedom fighter, and martyr.
- One group’s collateral damage – is another’s horrific, and inhumane massacre of innocents.
By removing justifying labels, we better stem the flow of violence in our lives, and we stop contributing new proof to strengthen the very negative belief system we are trying to heal in the world.
As violence clearly invites violence, it seems obvious any universal code must remove it as an acceptable tool in dealing with each other. A global commitment to nonviolent means of resolving conflicts is required and, just as importantly, commitment to nonviolent means of punishing crimes against society. Violence justified on any level leaves the field open for justified violence on any level. A society that validates and employs killing, torture, and physical abuse as appropriate punishment simply proves that, with established power and authority, violence is a viable means to an end.
A mistake is in assuming a monopoly on defining that power and authority. History offers countless examples of contenders for that kind of right; contenders who are invariably associated with creating the very victim identities that feed the image of a feared Other in the world. Hitler, as just one prime example, defined his power and authority in assuming the “right” of life and death over others.
It is not only reasonable to expect that premeditated violence be officially outlawed, it is unreasonable not to. I am not referring here to issues of immediate self-defense from a lethal physical attack, although some may have different views on this as well. For the purposes here, what is at issue is the model of acceptable universal behavior toward others when we have conscious choices. I propose that to choose violence by design is to lose the integrity of our moral authority.
5) Transforming The Group Ethos, From Martyrdom To Confident Compassion
In counseling we frequently deal with grief of some kind and treat it as a vital process that requires and deserves attention. Just as we would council individuals against chronically dwelling on losses and past wrongs done to them, to allow them to move forward in defining their lives in positive terms that increase and enhance their ability to relate in healthier ways with others, it is also important that communities and groups find ways to do the same.
Grieving is an essential human process that needs to be guided in a way that leads to resolution and reconciliation with the world and brings us back into balance. The final result needs to be a reestablished confidence in the goodness of life and a compassion for ourselves and others.
This would seem to be the most worthy testament of our honoring the dead and acts of supreme contribution and sacrifice to our communities and the world. It is not served by institutionalizing martyrdom and hatred, and the demonizing of others that provides the negative energy for future generations and future human tragedy.
There are many emotional “hot points” that serve as profound and deeply held symbols of a group’s ethos. Too often these hot points are memorials to wars and acts of violence where there has been a tragic loss of life that serve to galvanize the identity of victim and just retribution. A look at a societies most compelling monuments can offer a revealing window into it’s unresolved communal grievances and potential for hostility.
We need to invest less of our identity in war memorials that fester revenge and hatred, and invest instead in symbols that heal our cultural wounds. What is needed are more memorials to struggling toward peace and understanding together; memorials in the tradition of visionaries like: Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandella, to just name a few from the most recent century. An example in U.S. culture that instills hope, compassion, and the affirmation of life is the Statue of Liberty. The task here is to find healthier, more confident ways of celebrating our group esteem and paying tribute to our history, without it being at the cost of demonizing another group.
The level of inclusive public dialogue this writing seeks to invite can best be inspired by a vision of hope. That hope exists, even in these troubled times when it seems we are slipping toward more turmoil and tragedy, is undeniable. There is more hope than meets the eye, and certainly more than appears in the media. Because there is hope in the essence of each human being, simply by deciding to be a fully conscious and loving human being; someone capable of actualizing our fullest potential and influencing our own destiny. We can “choose” to consciously evolve to a better relationship with ourselves, each other, and our world community.
The Other has been part of us since our beginning. Whether family, tribal, cultural, religious, gender, or a multitude of other differences, we have tried to distinguish between us and them, we and they, me and you.
Even as we have created the Other, it has confounded and plagued us with a sense of fear for the “unknown” that shares our world. It is a vague, shadowy fear that always seems to be rumbling in the background. When we define the struggle as between forces of light and shadow, our metaphors betray the true story behind our fears — a struggle between the light of knowledge and familiarity, and the shadow of the unknown and alien.
If there is any culprit here, then I would propose it is ignorance defined as evil. And while the task of overcoming evil at every turn can be daunting for mere humans, there is great hope for finding practical solutions for overcoming ignorance.
What is needed is a profound shift in our collective consciousness. A shift that is quite possible if we can but be aware of the trance state we operate out of, and if we can purposely begin to make the shift together. It is no small thing to say that the reward is a future. One that honors our common human bond, and celebrates a constantly evolving treasure house of amazingly varied expressions of this humanity; where diversity becomes desirable, liberating, and paradoxically, reassuring.
Steve S. Olweean, MA, in Clinical Psychology,
Director, Common Bond Institute,
President, Association for Humanistic Psychology