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..:: The Other ::..


Alan Schneider


               One of the popular themes in Communication research is the concept of “The Other”, referring to members of identified outgroups in society.   The Other includes a wide variety of types and stereotypes on the fringes of established culture – outright criminals, social misfits, recognizable minorities, nonconformists, and many others – all of which have the common characteristic of having been outcast on the basis of some socially unacceptable behaviors practiced, or perhaps characteristics demonstrated. This essay examines what is meant by becoming “Otherized” (i.e. ostracized from mainstream culture), and applies this concept to the collective human condition and human consciousness, particularly focusing on the Freudian concept of xenophobia, the pathological fear of strangers, and the strange and unfamiliar.  

            The sense of The Other in communication literature (particularly in such areas as the Oral Interpretation of Literature) is that of something dark, forbidden, and menacing – a threatening phenomenon that affronts and challenges established norms, folkways, and social mores.   Regarding the confines of all that is acceptable, sacred, and preferred, we live within the “box” of propriety and the appropriate, and anything outside that box – really the complex of our life long socialization – is viewed with fear, hostility, and suspicion as the consequence of our behavioral conditioning.   There are also a myriad of sub-boxes defined by various subcultures within society, all more or less acceptable as long as they do not breach the boundaries of candor too blatantly, but often locked in class and group warfare with each other, nonetheless.   What is deemed well for one ingroup is often deemed foul for another, creating what is, in reality, a most fluid boundary around those seen as The Other – the outcasts, the pariahs, and the untouchables of one tradition are, in fact, the heroes, saviors, and icons of another.   Clearly, there is much more to this condition than meets the eye...  

            Presumably, there is something like a pure core manifestation within a given macroculture that exemplifies all that is excellent and worthy of attainment therein.   These are the select few that appear to be securely indemnified from The Other classification.   This can be expanded to the entire world order – the principals and commandments of faith around the world all generalize to a set of traits that define this excellence of being among the tarnished bulk of humanity.   And such individuals as this do seem to exist, or have existed – the Dali Lama, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Einstein, Christ, Buddha, and many others all at least superficially demonstrate this lofty achievement, and perhaps do, and did, so sincerely in the depth of their character.   This is the standard of the ideal human that stands at the opposing extreme to The Other in popular social conception, but, is it really what it appears to be?   Can, or should, this standard be applied to humanity in general?   Is there a deeper, hidden truth concealed in this dichotomy that can be revealed by probing the abiding principle of xenophobia, a defining manifestation present in the unconscious of our race?  Let us proceed with our inquiry.  

            When it comes right down to it, most of life is uncharted for the term of incarnation – the unfamiliar experience is far and away the most familiar experience – a paradox of great significance.   In our quest for security and predictability, we tend to become obsessed with seeking out the known and reliable amid the complex of what is really a quite chaotic deluge of random experience, summarily rejecting the great bulk of things that are simply uncommon and unfamiliar in preference for what is a tiny island of the known and customary.   So, the xenophobic response is really very common, perhaps the most common daily response, and (except in extreme cases) sinks beneath the threshold of conscious recognition to become an automatic sorting agency of perception as we segregate first on the basis of what we have already experienced and know to be predictable, and rejecting all else – again automatically.   Amazingly, this is how the vast majority of people function for the term of their lives, with never the slightest recognition of their self-created confinement!  

            Now, obviously, there is much regarding The Other that is menacing and should be guarded against – criminal subcultures and sadistic control fanatics, along with certifiable lunatics and the massively antisocial, are populations that are best contained and controlled for the sake of the general health and security of society – of this there can be no reasonable doubt in the minds of all reasonable people – in the words of Cat Stevens “just remember there’s a lot of bad, and beware!”    But, if we literally never, or rarely ever, venture out of our little behavioral enclosures, we die as conscious beings and responsible observers, becoming no more than artifacts of acculturation.   The Other must be confronted within our consciousness whenever possible – at least considered there as a possibly legitimate manifestation – for us to remain psychologically alive and vital, and understanding the etiology of the xenophobic response mode is the vital first step to achieving this behavioral goal.  

            The behavior of children having reached a certain age indicates that xenophobia is a more or less natural developmental response to environmental stimuli keyed to maturation – we tend to become xenophobic at a certain point in time, and become more so subsequently across time, particularly if exposed to an environment typified by a relatively high incidence of childhood trauma and/or deprivation.   This then becomes the primary challenge of living – to resist this innate tendency to abjectly reject and withdraw in favor of sensible investigation and cautious exploration.  The vast majority of psychological therapies have this as precisely the functional underpinning of their practice – to restore the capacity for cognitive, social, and spiritual exploration.   This is often a great challenge in a world that is fraught with uncertainty and peril – a world that seems to encourage, nay demand, xenophobia as an essential survival mechanism – but we will nonetheless fail to survive if we acquiesce to fear, of this we may be certain.              

            To resist the urge to stereotype and condemn is one of life’s most difficult undertakings, of this we may be assured, and nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in the xenophobic situation.   The real measure of courage is frequently to lay down arms in favor of investigation, instead of summarily and arbitrarily resorting to their use.   To “shoot first and ask questions later” is very seldom the best approach to unfamiliar social situations!   Of course, the same may be said of resorting to arbitrary condemnation and negative classification of others – The Others – however strongly we may be feeling compelled to do so.   On the other side of the cultural divide may well be an eventual friend and associate, if we can set aside our impulsive responses and suspicions.  

            Amid the negativity and uncertainty of this life, to remain objective, open, and compassionate is not easy – this requires constant challenges and setbacks along the way as we struggle to grow in love and acceptance in an ongoing process that continues throughout existence until its end.    The resistance to stereotyping and judgementalism is something that cannot be instilled in a college classroom, workplace, or stadium – it must be learned through hard confrontation with despair and hatred in the milieu where they first arise – the base human mind and ego.    This is perhaps best accomplished in social, psychological, or spiritual therapy environments – the growth group, the ashram, the Zendo, or the retreat, where such sentiments can be revealed and released under relatively safe, constructive circumstances.   Rather than shroud such environments and activities in fear and disapproval – and thus Otherizing them – we should make them a part of mainstream society and culture.   It is very sad that perhaps no group is as outcast as the mentally wounded – the ultimate Other in almost every culture on Earth.   Are we not all so wounded?  Are we not all so afflicted beneath the superficial covering of our social facades?   I say to you, no fear is as mean spirited as the fear of sentiment, and this is the root dysfunction of our race right now as this is being written. 

            For my part, I have risen to this challenge, daunting as it is, and have learned to recognize the xenophobic response for the hidden opportunity that it is, an opportunity to rise above my petty personal conditioning and be of real service to my fellow sentient creatures.   After all, we are all going to pass through the gate of uncertainty that is death eventually – that great equalizer of experience – and keeping this fact firmly in mind can be a source of empowerment and compassion while still among the living.   Ultimately, there are no strangers, only the potential friends that we have not yet created. 

                                          - With Love, Alan -

                         (Copyright 2009, by Alan Schneider)


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