The Other (Part Two)

Other AmericaGiven the “All Men Are Created Equal”-ness of our founding ideals, how is it we nevertheless retain such an entrenched sense of “The Other”? I respectfully suggest it’s a combination of five factors. I number them to create a false sense of academic credibility and scientific methodology, when in reality people like lists so bloggers put stuff in lists.

One: War. Given that the last formal declaration of war made by the United States was in 1941, we sure seem to stay militarily involved everywhere, all the time. Despite mankind’s penchant for perpetrating violence on one another, it’s actually rather difficult to get large numbers of people comfortable doing horrible things to their fellow man. So, we’ve developed propaganda – most of which is centered around the “Other”-ing of the enemy.

PropagandaOver time, that covers a pretty wide variety of peoples and groups. And it’s sticky. Once you’ve watched a political figure caricaturized on Saturday Night Live, you see and hear that figure through that lens indefinitely (just ask Sarah Palin or Gerald Ford). Imagine the long-term impact of government-sponsored demonization of every culture or color we’ve bombed in the past century.

Two: Self-justification. Think of the last person you treated poorly. Someone you shamefully used or betrayed. Or, if you’re too pure for that, think about the last person who misused you. How does mistreatment change the attitude of the abuser towards the abused?

You might assume there’d be guilt, sympathy, maybe some desire to make things right. More typical, however, is increased hostility and loathing towards the person violated. The more we mistreat someone, the more we despise them. It’s an ugly human nature thing.

The United States has done some wonderful stuff and aspired to some amazing ideals. Other times, though, we’ve lied, cheated, stolen from and killed everyone we found in our way or insufficiently submissive to our whims. Four centuries of slavery, virtual genocide of hundreds of Amerindian cultures, contrived war with Mexico, unbridled Imperialism – and that’s not even tackling the past century.

Other BlanketsAnd sure, stuff happens. Wars are fought. Some win, some lose. It’s not really conquering half the world of which we should consider being ashamed. It’s how often every step, every lie, every death, was cloaked in friendship and democracy, godliness and goodwill.

How do we reconcile our stated ideals with our behavior? Perpetually demonize or marginalize the losers! They weren’t simply defeated – it was TOTALLY THEIR FAULT despite all we tried to do to help. But… some people!

Three: Psychology (Cognitive Dissonance / Confirmation Bias). This is a variation on the previous factor, but more of an “after” than a “during.” We have a natural urge to see ourselves in a favorable light, to believe in a just and ordered universe, and to remain synced with our peers and professed ideals. So whether reading history or watching the news, people of all nationalities, educational attainments, and belief systems, have an amazing capacity to process and funnel input into our previously existing paradigms and passions, regardless of what others perceive.

That funneling is a type of “confirmation bias.” It means that we tend to notice and accept evidence of what we already believe or feel and ignore or downplay information which might complicate things. This very human flaw is often amplified in the wake of “cognitive dissonance” – conflict between what we wish to believe (especially about ourselves or our highest ideals) and the evidence in front of us.

Remember when you first fell in love? Your normally reliable friend encouraged caution, but everything your new love did only reinforced your affection. You saw with enamored eyes and heard with captivated ears, effectively filtering out the many warning signs while endlessly replaying the happy-fuzziest moments. That’s confirmation bias.

Other GrapesAt the same time, you knew this particular friend to be insightful and honest and above reproach – and she kept gently-but-firmly asking you to look more clearly. You consider yourself a realistic person as well; not the sort to fall into silly emotionalism. This creates cognitive dissonance. You could begin reappraising your new relationship, but instead you start resenting your friend and manufacturing offenses she’s suddenly committed against you. In fact, she’s probably jealous at all the time you’re spending with Hunk now. Or maybe she’s a great friend but a horrible judge of character. That resolves most of the dissonance.

We do that with everything.

If America is truly a ‘land of opportunity,’ but large pockets of people remain unsuccessful, it suggests the possibility that the system is broken, or inequitable. That risks calling into question MY success, and negating MY hard work and MY good choices and WTF?!

But if I “Other”-ize those who are struggling, I spare myself intellectual and spiritual discomfort. It’s not MY fault how “They” are. I’m with “Us.” Because that doesn’t feel quite right at first, I up the internal rhetoric. They’ve no doubt made any number of bad decisions, lack education, aren’t in the right church, and add nothing to the mix aesthetically. Conflict resolved: The system is safe; they deserve what they’re getting. Heck, they’re lucky they have it as good as they do, all things considered.

Ingrates.

Lest it seem I’m only condemning evangelicals, let’s try an experiment for my lefty friends:

“I have great news. I just became a Christian!”

All that judgey rude stuff you liberals just assumed and felt without even consciously intending to? That’s you filtering new information so that your universe remains consistent. Et tu, litteratus?

Dilbert Cognitive Dissonance

Four: Unrealistic Expectations. Modern America is the land of the 23-minute sitcom solution, the feel-good moral of the story. We want so badly for things to fit neat narratives, even when it comes to matters of equity and justice.

How often have we been told that everyone is the same, regardless of race, religion, or background? Is it true? What about the idea that if we’ll just get to know one another, we’ll walk away with some perky bit of insight or understanding? Does that always happen? Unless Pocahontas marries John Smith every time, we feel like something hasn’t quite resolved.

HSM OtherDon’t get me wrong – it’s nifty when it does. Sometimes we ARE the same, and we can often learn much from one another. Sometimes the Mighty Ducks or the X-Men pull together and save the day.
But our obsession with such niceties too easily morphs into a subconscious sensation that unless this happens, the “Other” hasn’t held up their end of the deal. They haven’t established full personhood or value because we haven’t had our fairy tale moment. 

Our national birth certificate doesn’t say that all men have the potential to become equal once they learn the system, nor does it suggest that our warm fuzziness together is in any way a prerequisite to the whole “unalienable rights” motif.

I shouldn’t have to learn something nifty about the world through your eyes or embrace the way our differences bring us together for you to be “all men.” We can’t place conditions on anything we simultaneously insist the Creator has endowed to all.

Five: We Suck. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). We maintain only the thinnest façade of decency, the flakiest gilding of civilization. For all of our progress, we’re wretchedly close to savages and beasts. You show me the Louvre, I’ll show you a million hits on a YouTube video of a girl being beaten up. You offer Shakespeare, I’ll counter with WWE.

Lord of the OtherThe “Other” is a punching bag for our primitive selves – Littluns and Piggies for our Jacks. We may never completely overcome it, but we can fight it. We can insist without exception or equivocation that we’re all the “Us” spoken of in our most foundational ideals.  Otherwise, we’re doing the most important thing we can ever do completely and totally wrong.

And blaming Others while we do.

RELATED POST: The Other (Part One)

RELATED POST: It's Not About Them (It's About Us)

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