by Sara Rismyhr Engelund
The concept of “the Other” is a complex one, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it means. Does it have any meaning at all? The question of who the other is might seem useless, because in some way we are all “others” to someone, and everyone else is “other” to us. We can never fully know the other, and even if we strive to do so, “the other” is constantly changing. At the same time, there can be no “I” without a relation to and a concept of the other. We need something that in some degree is different from ourselves to actually constitute a self. Still, how do we bring meaning into a term that refers to absolutely everyone?
What I would like to do here, as an anthropologist-to-be, is to concentrate on a phenomenon that derives from the concept; the act of othering as a manifestation of power relations. When we start describing ourselves as part of a group of people united in a “we”, while other people are constructed as fundamentally different, united in a “they”, we are using a powerful weapon that might serve to delegitimize others. And too often, these distinctions are drawn along the classic axes of discrimination and power differences, like sexuality, gender, ethnicity, “race”, class and so on.
According to Michel Foucault, othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we “other” another group, we point out their perceived weaknesses to make ourselves look stronger or better. It implies a hierarchy, and it serves to keep power where it already lies. Colonialism is one such example of the powers of othering.
In my field, anthropology, “the Other” was for a very long time the core object of study for the entire discipline, and one could even argue that early anthropology was a direct result of colonialism. What anthropologists did, was to travel somewhere else and study what someone else did – often ignoring factors such as the so-called “natives” relations to neighboring groups and to the rest of the world. The exciting Other societies were described as separate, stable entities, and both cooperation with other groups and development within the community were often neglected. Anthropology today has become something much more self-reflexive – not only are our own societies looked upon with perhaps the same curiosity as “the others” once were (and still is), research today also pays more attention to issues like change, globalization and power relations. Still, the examples from pre-1960s ethnography underlines an important element of othering – differences between societies are emphasized while similarities are hidden. It is easier to legitimize power over another group when this group seems to have very little in common with the group in power.
Another example of othering is present in the discourse around same-sex marriage. It was long overdue when the law was passed in Norway as late as in 2008, and it is sad that so few countries have gender-neutral marriage laws. The lead-up to the law change, however, did have implications of othering, at least in Norway. The notion that ” ‘they’ can’t help being ‘like that’, just let ‘them’ have what ‘we’ have taken for granted for centuries” is in my opinion strongly underlying here. It feels like the general public opinion displayed some kind of sympathy towards the poor gay people who were “born that way” and who were another kind of people, though equal to and with the same rights as straight people. Also, the wording in English implies othering; there are “people”, the basis, and there are gay people, black people or people of color, poor people – people with a little add-on to distinguish them from the “default” person, who is often western, white, straight, middle class and in many cases also male.
It’s hard to imagine a society in which we divide people into “us” and “them” without putting “us” above “them”. Simultaneously, it’s difficult to defend an idea of absolutely all groups thinking as solely negative, because a completely individual mode of thinking makes it almost impossible to address discrimination and the collective aspect of power and power abuse. What is more important to remember, though, is that most of us are members of countless different groups, that might need to act as groups at different times. Context is important when playing out identities.
We cannot get away from the concept of the other, as it is too crucial for an understanding of the self. What we can do, though, is to limit the ways in which we group people up and construct them as something entirely different from an imagined “us”. The power of definition is a strong one, and when used in the context of othering, it continues to reinforce discrimination.