Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Other is Us.

Humans have a concept of self and other. The other is not them. On an individual basis that makes sense. But humans tend to collectivize that concept. So we end up with “Us” and “Others.”

Defining the “Us” is difficult. So we take shortcuts, we define “Us” by an exclusionary rule: Us is not Other. Instead of trying to define what makes “Us” us, we concentrate on what makes us different from the Other.

Each of Us tends to assume that the Us group is good. It must be, we are part of it. So the Other must be not good, since they are not Us. If they are good they may well then be evil, or even a threat and danger. So every Us group tends to distrust and attack those it classifies as Other.

In human history the Us tended to be defined on arbitrary, nonsensical criteria. To be Us you were of our race, our nationality, spoke our language, or belonged to our religion. Those were basic categories of group. Each Us group tended to despise each Other group. Yet the moral character of the individual is not determined by which of these groups he happens to be born into. The German Us group distrusted the French Us group and neither trusted the British Us group.

Us groups benefit from the presence of the Other. If those who see themselves as Us feel threatened by the Other, whether the threat is real or imaginary matters not, they the Us group will tend to be more united. People will lock arms in the face of a common enemy. Political leaders have long known this to be the case, which is why they tend to invent common enemies who present a threat. Politicians raise the matter of “threats” in order to force their Us group to coalesce around them and give them the power they claim they need in order to face the dangerous Other.

To a large degree this tendency to define humans as Us and Other has led to a great deal of misery. Yet many individuals continually push this destructive concept. Such is the nature of the rabid fundamentalist or the patriotic nationalist.

But we don’t just engage in the Us and Other dichotomy on a global level but on a community level as well. In the United States, both the Right and the Left, try to use this Us/Other concept for their own political agenda. The Right will define immigrants as Other, or gays as Other. The Left demonizes businessmen or gun owners. The problem with Left-wing demonization is that it doesn’t resonate as well as does the Right-wing kind. It isn’t that the Left doesn’t engage in such practice, it’s just that they are not currently as good at it — no matter how hard Michael Moore tries.

That isn’t to say that the Left has not been very good at using the Other for political purposes. Contrary to common perception the main advocates of anti-Semitic hatred in the West were Left-wing theorists. What Hitler and the Nazis did was adopt a scapegoating technique used by people like Marx. Marx claimed that the spirit of capitalism was Jewish. The rabid anti-Semites of the 19th century were Marxists and socialists of various stripes. Hitler’s National Socialists merely appropriated a technique that had been used in European politics. And the anti-Jewish images he played on were ones used previously by Marx and others. It should be noted there was no shortage of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union under Communist rule either.

I was reading a description of a debate in New England where people were asked to testify on the matter of gay marriage. The author spoke of how confusing it was. Individuals that one would assume were against the equality of marriage rights stood up and defended them. Others, who people assumed to be supportive, were not. It became difficult to look out on the sea of faces and tell who was who.

One of the great difficulties that gay people have faced, in the battle for marriage equality, has been that so many gay people are in hiding. The closet, forged by centuries of violent political repression, is still strong. People enter this world with the assumption by everyone around them, that they are straight. When they aren’t it confuses things.

But this is precisely why I think that gays can win the battle. While silly old women like Maggie Gallagher and Jennifer Morse try to define gays as the Other, and as a threat to the great Us, they face an insurmountable problem. Gay Others are not like Jewish Others. One does noit discover that one accidentally gave birth to Jew, but many parents do discover they have a gay child.

The hateful Religious Right tries to classify gays as the Other. But this Other is unlike most other Others. They are us. Gay people are our children, our cousins, our friends, and our neighbors. And as more and more realize that gays are not the Other, but Us, the Right loses its ability to stop the progress that is being made. This is a point that legal theorist Charles Fried, often called a conservative, tends to make in his interesting book Modern Liberty. Fried noted individuals could either imagine how they would feel if they were gay, and thus grant equal rights, or deny such rights. But the denial, he said, also means “to deny their humanity, which would be hideous, for we are talking of thinking, feeling human beings who are literally our brothers and sisters.”

There are so many Others who need to be included with Us. I think of the poor immigrants who are blamed so unfairly, and treated so badly, by the political Right and unionists and similar groups. Are they not Us as well? Are they not Us because they speak Spanish? Because their skin is browner than our own?

When the Abolitionists fought slavery they first had to destroy the concept that slaves were Others. The great liberal and pottery make, Josiah Wedgewood, created a symbol of a slave in chains with the motto “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?”

Where is the dividing line between Us and Other? Is not the greater Us, the human race, sufficient? Why must we seek out Others and isolate them?

It isn’t that there are no differences. There are. And there are some that are important. The violent man, the one who would harm others, or destroy the lives of others, these are people worthy of shunning. But race, nationality, language, and other such criteria are not worthy of consideration.

What we need to do, and something we libertarians must always emphasize as individualists, is to stress the common humanity of each of us. We are all human. All Others are human. When we realize this simple premise we understand that the Other is Us. There is no distinction.

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