The Other (Two)
Given the ‘All Men Are Created Equal’-ness of our founding ideals, how is it that we retain such an entrenched sense of ‘The Other’? I respectfully suggest it’s a combination of five factors. I make no claim they hold equal sway or interact in any sort of conscious or rational way.
One: War. Given that the last formal declaration of war made by the United States was in 1941, we sure seem to stay militarily involved everywhere, all the time. Despite mankind’s penchant for perpetrating violence on one another, it’s still actually rather difficult to get large numbers of people comfortable doing horrible things to one another. So… we’ve developed propaganda – most of which is centered around the ‘Other’-ing of the enemy.
Over time, that covers a pretty wide variety of peoples and groups. And it’s sticky. Once you’ve heard a political figure caricaturized on Saturday Night Live, you see and hear that figure through that lens indefinitely (just ask Sarah Palin or Gerald Ford). Imagine the long-term impact of government-sponsored demonization of every culture or color we’ve bombed in the past century.
This is hardly unique to American history, by the way – but we do it so much better than most. ‘Merica!
Two: Self-justification. Think of the last person you treated poorly. Someone you shamefully used or betrayed. If you’re so pure and caring as to be beyond such a past, think about the last person who misused you instead. How does mistreatment change the attitude of the abuser towards the abused?
You might assume there’d be guilt, sympathy, maybe some desire to make things right. More typical, however, is an increased hostility and loathing towards the person violated. The more we mistreat someone, the more we despise them. It’s an ugly human nature thing.
The United States has done some wonderful stuff and aspired to some amazing ideals. Mostly, though, we’ve lied, cheated, stolen from and killed everyone we found in our way or insufficiently submissive to our whims. Four centuries of slavery, virtual genocide of hundreds of Amerindian cultures, contrived war with Mexico, unbridled Imperialism – and that’s not even tackling the past century.
And sure, stuff happens. Wars are fought. Some win, some lose. It’s not really conquering half the world of which we should consider being ashamed. It’s how often every step, every lie, every death, every betrayal was cloaked in friendship and democracy, godliness and goodwill.
Stalin or Hitler may have been some crazy bastards, but they were at least transparent about their desire to rule the world and crush everyone in their way. We’re more like the guy who keeps slipping and stabbing people or knocking them off the ledge while proclaiming ‘Oops!’ and ‘That is SO not what I meant to happen – are you OK?’
How do we reconcile our stated ideals with our behavior? Perpetually demonize or marginalize the loser! They weren’t simply defeated – it was TOTALLY THEIR FAULT despite all we tried to do to help. But… some people!
Three: Cognitive Dissonance. This is a variation on the previous factor, but camped out in ‘after’ rather than ‘during’. We have a natural urge to see ourselves in a reasonably favorable light, to believe in a just and ordered universe, and to remain synced with our peers and professed ideals. So whether reading history or watching the news, people of all nationalities, educational attainments, and belief systems, have an amazing capacity to process and funnel input into our previously existing paradigms and passions, regardless of what others perceive.
Remember when you first fell in love? Your friends encouraged caution, but everything he said or did only reinforced your affections. You saw with enamored eyes and heard with captivated ears. Later, during that ugly break-up? He couldn’t eat toast or hum in the shower without you knowing for a FACT he was doing it just to annoy you. Every word or look, every unconscious action, became proof of what an ass he truly was. Different filters were being applied to make sure reality cooperated with what you needed to be true.
We do that with everything.
One example: if America is truly a ‘land of opportunity,’ but large pockets of people remain unsuccessful, it suggests the possibility that the system is broken, or inequitable. That risks calling into question MY success, and negating MY hard work and MY good choices and WTF?!
If I ‘Other’-ize those less successful, I’ll spare myself some discomfort. It’s not MY fault how ‘They’ are. I’m with ‘Us’. We reconcile dissonance by categorizing inconvenient people and dumping all responsibility on them. Conflict resolved. They’re not doing it right.
By the way, my lefty friends – you do this too. I’m not just talking to the conservatives. Here, I’ll prove it.
Yep. All that stuff you just thought and felt without a moment’s consideration? That’s you filtering so your universe is more convenient. Et tu, litteratus?
Four: Unrealistic Expectations. Modern America is the land of the 23-minute sitcom solution, the feel-good moral of the story. We want so badly for things to fit neat narratives, even when it comes to matters of equity and justice.
How often have we been told that everyone is the same, regardless of race, religion, or background? Is it true? What about the idea that if we’ll just get to know one another, we’ll walk away with some treasured bit of insight or understanding? Does that always happen? Unless Pocahontas marries John Smith every time, we feel like something hasn’t quite resolved.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s nifty when it does. Sometimes we ARE the same, and we can often learn much from one another. Sometimes the Mighty Ducks or the X-Men pull together and save the day.
But our obsession with such niceties too easily morphs into a subconscious sensation that unless this happens, the ‘Other’ hasn’t held up their end of the deal. They haven’t established full personhood or value because we haven’t had our fairy tale moment.
Our national birth certificate doesn’t say that all have the potential to become equal once they learn the system, nor does it suggest that our warm fuzziness together is in any way a prerequisite to the whole ‘unalienable rights’ motif.
I shouldn’t have to learn something nifty about the world through your eyes or embrace the way our differences bring us together for you to be ‘all men’. We can’t place conditions on anything we simultaneously insist the Creator has endowed to all.
Five: We Suck. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). We maintain only the thinnest façade of decency, the flakiest gilding of civilization. For all of our progress, we’re wretchedly close to savages and beasts. You show me the Louvre, I’ll show you a million hits on a YouTube video of a girl being beaten up. You offer Shakespeare, I’ll counter with WWE.
The ‘Other’ is a punching bag for our primitive selves – Littluns and Piggies for our Jacks. We may never completely overcome it, but we can fight it. We can insist without exception or equivocation that we’re all the ‘Us’ spoken of in our most foundational ideals. Otherwise, we’re doing the most important thing we can ever do completely and totally wrong.
And blaming Others while we do.
RELATED POST: The Other (One)