Otherizing

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Okay, “otherizing” is not really a word but has come into use and, I think, proved itself quite useful.  In a Huffington Post blog, Mirabai Starr writes:

As a Native New York Jew who grew up in the counter-culture of New Mexico and spent my 20s in northern California, the American South is as foreign to me as Mongolia. Maybe more. And so visiting the Bible Belt is a perfect opportunity for me to walk my talk and reject the impulse to “otherize.”

Otherizing is a word I thought I made up, but then I found it in the Urban Dictionary online. Also my friend Elizabeth Lesser uses it in a TED talk. So I’m in good company. Thou shalt not otherize is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian traditions. It did not make it onto the stone tablets, but (IMHO) it should have.

Long before the coining of the word for it, otherizing has been the means and process by which groups of people have divorced other groups from our shared humanity, sometimes merely to exclude them from concern and compassion, sometimes to exploit, enslave, or kill them.  For the purposes of warfare, certainly, it is necessary to otherize the enemy.  Thomas Hardy shows us the problem in his poem, “The Man He Killed”:

    Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

The societal problems caused by our otherizing groups of people, most often minorities but also a majority (women) are legion.  The twice-election of the first black President of the United States has made otherizing him the daily occupation of countless people in our land, from the steady stream of disgustingly racist cartoons passed by email around American workplaces to the mind-numbing screeds of TV and radio blabbers.  Many Americans, it seems, cannot bear the reality of a black man in the White House and so find themselves compelled to make him appear in their own minds as subhuman or superhuman, sometimes both at once.  So divided are we now as a society that politicians and would-be politicians seek to label even the majority of us as “not real Americans.”  Someone once warned us about the impending downfall of a “house divided against itself.”

Otherizing is also (and for me, at root) a theological problem.  We call it sin.  Yup, it’s what sin is.

Also at root, evil is harm – hurting and destroying.  As harm, evil emerges and acts from our lack of empathy with the other person: he or she is not one of us or one with us in any sharing of our humanity and so may be hurt or destroyed without pain to conscience.

By the way, I think Starr is both right and wrong.  She’s right that “Thou Shalt Not Otherize” is basic to biblical faith and life.  She’s wrong, except in the most literal sense of the words themselves, that this commandment did not make it onto the stone tablets; it’s all over them.

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