The evil of ‘othering’










It’s part of human nature to secure identity by rivalry, building barriers, erecting implacable oppositions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We tend to define ourselves in terms of what we are that the ‘other’ isn’t or in terms of what we are not, compared to what the ‘other’ is. In ‘othering’, or emphasizing ‘their’ difference, it seems to enhance ‘our’ identity.

In postcolonial theory, othering refers to the social and/or psychological ways in which one group excludes or marginalises another group. By declaring someone other, a culture or group will tend to stress what makes the other in question dissimilar from or opposite. This carries over into representation, especially through stereotypical images. This process is deeply at work in much colonial practice, as well as in post-colonial attempts to come to terms with the past.

When we label someone the other, and distance our empathy with him or her, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them. Two factors are often at play in othering: ethnocentrism, the tendency of a group (in-group) to consider its members and values as superior to the members and values of other groups (out-groups) and xenophobia, the tendency to fear outsiders or strangers.

If one looks at the history of world religions, including Christianity, they have all played a major role in this process of othering. Often operating alongside nationalism, racism, patriarchy and casterism, religions have encouraged people to nurture inflated self-understandings along with detrimental understandings of those who do not belong to their fold.

In fact, this common but often ignored trait of othering has been the source of most evils done in the name of god(s).
Colonialism and neo-colonialism, slavery and modern forms of slavery, violence against women and other vulnerable groups, child labour, child soldiers, environmental exploitation, different expressions of injustice, war and violence, corruption and abuse of power – all have their roots in this dynamic of othering.

The policies of the present (and previous) government on asylum seekers are appalling. It appears the end (‘Stop the boats’) justifies the means. A poll conducted recently by the Sydney Morning Herald showed that a strong majority of Australians (60 per cent) want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”

Clearly the ideology of othering is at play here. It doesn’t matter whether the asylum seeker is fleeing from any manner of evil, an orphaned child, a pregnant woman or an exhausted freedom fighter.

It seems the complexities of the asylum seeker’s situation are immaterial within the Australian discourse. The children, the crippled, the persecuted, the bereaved, the gentle people searching for a better life and future – they are all an offence on our sovereignty, our homogeneity, our security, and our sense of self.

The asylum seeker becomes the other (illegals, queue jumpers, boat people), and somehow has become a threat to our sovereign borders. This othering allows governments to ignore human rights obligations on the pretence of it being for the good of the nation.
We must resist the temptation to reduce any human being to a category or type. And we must be aware of our tendency to ultimately do violence against those we stereotype or label. It is important not to make a stranger the other.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of bloodshed in Rwanda.  Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis – and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.

On the surface it’s baffling to understand the scale of animosity between Hutus and Tutsis as the two groups are not culturally dissimilar. Most Hutus and Tutsis belong to the same religion and speak the same language, and kinship through marriage was commonplace. However, a them-and-us mentality had governed Rwandan society, arguably since the Belgian colonialist had emphasised ethnic differences.1

A precondition for genocide is the existence of an other to be annihilated. In Rwanda, political leaders from both the Hutu and Tutsi side exaggerated perceived ethnic differences and stirred old grievances using propaganda.

For example, Hutu radio presenters often referred to Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’, fuelling anger, and setting in motion the systematic and organised mass murder.

I like the story Jesus told about two men who went into the temple to pray. One was a self-righteous religious leader. In his prayers he was boasting about his wonderful religious deeds and how different he was from other people: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”. Then, glancing toward the other man, who belonged to one of the most intensely despised categories of that society, he added a ‘PS’ to his prayer to notify God of his gratitude that he wasn’t like that man over there (‘the other’ personified).

The man from the despised group, for his part, felt unworthy even to look toward heaven as he prayed, but simply pounded his chest and prayed that God would have mercy on him because he was a sinner. Jesus said it was this second man, not the self-righteous one, who had pleased God.  Jesus concluded: “… all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Scripture says that Jesus told that story to “some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

Jesus is about breaking down walls, erasing lines in the sand, widening circles, extending tables. He shows us there is one humanity. There are no ‘others’ who are a different kind of human being. In Jesus, we see the category of the other shrink and disappear.

Following in Jesus’ footsteps, motivated by love, we are called to reverse this process of othering: to humanise our enemies, to bring the outsider in, to welcome strangers, to embrace and celebrate our differences as gifts from God. God’s tapestry: It’s a colourful world.

In God’s world there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, all are welcome to God’s table and that means a full stop to the evil of othering.

KOH Swee-Ann
Director Cross-cultural Mission and Ministry Unit,
Commission for Mission

1Tracing the conflict back to its roots in 1916, a tumultuous relationship between two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis, was engineered by the Belgians (colonisers). Through their recess of identification, intended to facilitate a policy of ‘divide and rule,’ the Belgians elevated the status of the otherwise culturally similar Tutsis to a position of superiority over the Hutus. Such favouring has given way to a history replete with distrust and violence, compounded by unequal access to resources. This fractured relationship erupted in mass murder in 1994.

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