In the present environment, it's difficult to go a day without hearing about one cultural war or another. One offence given. One or more groups targeted. From the individual, to families, campuses, corporations and nations, we appear stuck in a downward spiral. But could it be that many of these issues are actually not isolated in the way they appear to be? Is there a single dis-ease beneath the siloed battles appearing on our human skin?
This Easter weekend, I took my dog for a walk on a cold Toronto day. I was in one of the city's large parks, and there were many families out, just as I was, enjoying the day. A large dog suddenly came out of the bushes, and lunged for mine, who was quietly walking on a leash. Thirty seconds later, another commotion; again the large dog had attacked another who was peacefully walking along a path. The owner of the attacked dog challenged the owner of the aggressive dog, and a verbal fight broke out. I won't repeat the language here, but let's just say that the aggressive dog owner vociferously defended his "right" to continue walking his dog, off-leash in the public park.
In our cultural times, it would be easy to blame the category called "men", but the word that sprang to my mind on that Easter day, was selfish. It's the same word I think of in connection to many of the more serious abuses of power, within families as well as outside them. An individual can be fundamentally self-involved, and hostile to the other, just as a group or nation can.
As William James pointed out, the self is not limited to the physical body. It reaches to what we're associated with:
"a man's Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account." James, Principles of Psychology 1890
So, it follows that our dogs are (in James' formula) experienced as an extension or part of our selves. Likewise, you and I may have a certain religious order, political persuasion, nationality, skin colour or gender, and feel as if those were a part of us.
Hegel pointed out that beyond the self lies the other, a kind of binary opposite. And it is our attitude to the other that determines so much of the carnage in the world. There's something terribly tempting about sitting inside one category, and casting aspertions on another. That temptation is self, and it's often based on concepts of identity that are, quite literally, skin-deep.
If you have grown up in a narcissistic family, literal or metaphorical, you know what being objectified and othered feels like. As a legitimate self, you are denied. To receive positive attention, you have to pander. Your persona is verified, rather than your true self. You probably know what it is to be made a scapegoat. The result is that you do not feel accepted as an part of the powerful "family".
Relationships to the Other:
Sometimes, we're forced to deny the other. Living in a busy city for example, means that it would be overwhelming to the psyche to acknowledge every passer-by, and to be open and curious about them. We can easily be nudged towards narcissism. Self and self-group exclusivity can easily be implicitly or explicitly encouraged. Othering is always but a regressive step away.
Similarly, we oftenalter the psychological size of the other. We may be judgmental, or use categories to artificially define the other and make them smaller. At the same time, we make our self inflate and feel justified. It's not incidental to note that modern humans habitually treat nature this way. We commonly reduce it to a series of numbers or scientific descriptions. We categorize and utilize it. We often treat animals like things, or nothings.
In psychoanalysis, writers like Lacan and Winnicott have long discussed how the other becomes real. We emerge from our own one-ness as babies, so that the (m)other is no longer just a good or bad narcissisticsupply, or an illusiory aspect of self. Communication, disillusion and the consequences of actions such as biting all contribute to a growth away from one-ness, and towards empathy, true relating and respect. The other can become real, though this is not guaranteed in individual development, and we retain an ability to return to self-centredness, and for a lifetime may find belonging in narcissistically-oriented groups.
In my micro-example, the owner of the aggressive dog was narcissistically, not relationally, present. He was, in extension and effect, biting like a pre-empathic baby. The root of so many familial and societal problems is the same: we deny the other's existence in favour of our own. We reduce. We classify. We project, objectify and favour grandiosity. We fail to empathize and respect. But while it is important to address the existing damage and individual manifestations and symptoms we see about us, we should not ignore the underlying cause, which is not one of skin colour, gender, group or nation, but one of our common and problematic psychology.
This week, I came across an "ism" that surprised me. The word I found was "sanism" - the prejudice and discrimination against those who suffer from mental illness. Why hadn't I heard this word before, I thought? After all, I'm a psychotherapist, and the ill-treatment of those who are suffering in the sphere of mental health is hardly foreign territory.
The discovery of this word prompted me to wonder whether a kind of fatigue has set into society. Marginalized groups across the spectrum of human experience are competing hard to have their voices heard. Culture wars are setting social media on fire on a daily basis, and the news is filled with horrors. Perhaps, I thought, there's only so much space on our moral radars for isms, and "sanism" just hadn't quite made the cut, yet.
Disparate marginalized groups, though often sympathizing with the struggles they see elsewhere, spend most of their energy fighting their own particular corner. This siloed approach has made some notable gains over time, but is this fractured approach the most effective, or even the most realistic one?
Beneath the surface, the majority of these groups are attempting to overcome the same subterranean foe: othering.
Q: What is othering?
A: To view or treat another person or group in a reductive manner, and as intrinsically different from, and inferior to, the self (or group-self).
Othering makes use of projection to denigrate outsiders and scapegoats, thereby contributing to group cohesion and conformity. Othering is also closely associated with narcissism: a narcissistic group or individual will unconsciously regard others as things or uses that either contribute to narcissistic supply, or threaten the narcissist's hidden fragility.
As the word suggests, another defining characteristic of othering is an exaggeration and concentration upon difference, rather than what is held in common (our sameness). The psychological mechanism of othering includes a drastic departure from the reality that we are all, in truth, very similar. There is undoubtedly a very human irony present in the world when so many of the othered cannot themselves acknowledge the qualities they have in common. The result is a fractured resistance to a universal, deeply-rooted and ancient human trait.
Psychotherapist, working in private practice in the Annex, Toronto.