The Seduction of the Other

Quick. Picture:

  • A welfare recipient
  • An immigrant
  • A drug addict
  • A socialist

I bet most of you thought of:

  • A black woman, likely with too many kids
  • An illegal Mexican immigrant (possibly, a rapist if you’re Donald Trump)
  • A black guy shooting up heroin or smoking crack
  • Bernie Sanders

Here’s what you might have pictured instead:

  • A young family living in an Army base
  • An Asian engineer
  • A white man or woman addicted to painkillers
  • Margaret Thatcher

Welfare recipients are about equally likely to be Caucasian or African-Americans.  Many food stamp recipients are poor families living on military bases, working hard, but needing supplemental help. Last year, there were almost one million legal immigrants with Asians being the most common represented race.  There were less than 400,000 illegal aliens (yes, mostly Mexican). Substance abuse is more common among whites than blacks (and much more common among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans). As to Bernie Sanders, his policies, at least as far as health care are concerned, are not that much different from those espoused by leaders of our European allies.

My topic for this post is not welfare, immigration or drug use. It’s not about Bernie Sanders either. It’s about our innate distrust of the Other and how it is our nature to demonize groups. It is also about how politicians exploit this distrust and get us to hate The Other. It is a plea for us to understand these phenomena and to recognize when we are falling into natural traps. It is about avoiding the seductiveness of hating our neighbors.

Humans are social animals.  We like to live in groups. We trace the development of our civilization by digging up evidence of early human tribes. The discovery of ancient villages, burial grounds and structures provide a timeline illustrating our progression from nomadic tribes to farming communities and fortified villages. The timeline shows how early villages evolved into cities and city-states.  Our Medieval history is one of independent principalities being incorporated into nations and, later, into leagues of nations. There is safety and prosperity in large numbers. Today, a city that is growing is prosperous; one that is shrinking is in decay. This timeline of amalgamation, however, is also accompanied by another timeline noting the battles and wars that were involved in achieving our current political boundaries. While humans are social animals, sometimes it requires a sharp stick to get them to socialize, especially when it involves the tribe on the other side of the hill.

There is no paradox here.  A group is defined as much by who is not in it as by who is.  There is no cool-kids table without kids who are not cool. There is safety in a tribe because your tribe members can come to your aid when you are attacked by people from the other side of the hill. There is “us” and there is the “other.”

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, co-starring Frank Gorshin (who was one of my favorite impressionists, but that’s beside the point). In this episode, Kirk and Company visit a war-torn planet where only two inhabitants remain.  The two are mortal enemies who will stop at nothing to kill the other.  The two seem almost identical with distinct racial features that manifest themselves in a two-colored face, black on one side and white on the other.  Upon closer examination of the two enemies, however, we realize that one of the two is white on the left and the other is white on the right.  Thus, the war. A bit heavy-handed, but you get the point.

As our civilization has progressed and our tribes grown, the distinctions between ourselves and the Other have become more nuanced. It is no longer about the tribe over the hill. It might be about religion (Shiite v. Sunni), political philosophy (North Korea v. South Korea) or mineral rights (South China Sea).  It might also be about the role of government (Democrat v. Republican), sports (Real Madrid v. FCB) or cultural integrity (Nicki Minaj v. Miley Cyrus). I posit that the silliness of divisions is directly proportional to the prosperity of a tribe. When things are going well, all you’ve got left to argue about is which side of the face should be white and which should be black.

It is our nature to find divisions and to collect with similar tribe members.  I’m sure we will find a gene that determines our affinity for this practice and that neuroimaging will identify the part of the brain in which it manifests. Accept it; it’s part of human nature.

As with everything else that is natural (hunger, sex, fear, etc.), people will seek to exploit this nature.  If you haven’t read “Bowling for Columbine”, do so. Right now. Its treatise on our climate of fear tells you most everything I’m trying to communicate in this post. There are people profiting by your fear.

One of the most effective ways to get you to fear is to demonize the Other. We need to stop illegal immigration because immigrants are rapists and drug dealers.  Al Qaeda is trying to sneak Ebola-infected patients in with immigrants.  Immigrants will rape your daughters and then take your jobs. Really. There are really people who profit from getting you to believe these things.

The first step that any alcoholic has to take to address the disease is to admit to being an alcoholic. We need to admit our fear of the Other. It’s a natural fear. Once we admit it, however, we can recognize it.  We can hold it in our (figurative) hands and turn it over.  We can analyze it more closely and tell whether it’s a real fear or a manufactured one.

Welfare recipients, by and large, are poor people who honestly need help and are trying the best they can to do better. Immigrants are people who have the courage and ambition to travel to a strange country to better their lives. Gay marriage will not destroy heterosexual unions.  Universal healthcare will not turn us into the Soviet Union.  Real Madrid fans are people, too (even if their team is just a European version of the Yankees).  White/black v. black/white? Get over it.  If you must fear or hate someone, direct your feelings at those trying to manipulate you.  They are much more dangerous than your neighbor.

PS: I wrote this minutes before learning of the terrorist incidents in Paris. I considered whether the post might be poorly timed in the face of such heinous attacks. I considered whether to pull the post, but decided not to.  My post does not suggest that there is never any reason to fear others; clearly, there is.  My point is that we should be wary of attempts to manipulate us into irrational fears.  I suspect that, over the course of the next few days and weeks, that we will see many such attempts as people seek to profit from the tragedy in France.

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