Thursday, December 31, 2015

US vs. Them: The Perceived Threat of the Other

Religious wearing a "We're right" sign while holding the Bible
Beginning in our infancy, we instinctively learn to separate the self from the other. The infant notices that there is indeed a physical separation between them and their mother. With time, this separation of the self increases and crystallizes into a unique identity.

This separation is encouraged more in certain cultures like the West with its focus on individuality and reason, while Eastern culture with its collectivist outlook may prefer harmony and unity over the fragmentation of the self. Be it as it may, one can analyze what the separation consists of alongside its inherent criteria as well as its possible consequences.

Physically speaking, where does my body end and the body of the other begin? This seems to have relatively clear marked lines as I can claim that this pound of flesh is mine and is visibly separate from yours. To protect my own body I may ask the other, among other things, to give me some physical distance, which may be broken by loved ones.

Poetically speaking, we overcome or annihilate the physical separation with our lover, an act that is often portrayed as a mystical union in Sufi tradition, for instance. In that sense, the touch of the lover will connect my body with hers. It is only in love-making where physical distinctions completely blur and the body becomes one. Put differently, the body of the one merges with the other, becomes indistinguishable and creates a new unified entity.

But separation does not exist only on a physical level; there are also various types of psychological separation. This can still exist within those same aforementioned lovers where each holds onto a separate identity. But in psychological terms, we may identify with particular groups and as a result extend ourselves beyond the self. For instance, we often see those who belong to our family as part and parcel of our identity.

This circle can be extended to include friends and acquaintances and social, national and religious groups. Moreover, I may identify myself with my city, my country, my religion and even my local hockey team, that is I perceive a connection between me and all the others who belong to those groups. During hockey games, fans tend to easily set themselves apart through their clothing and paraphernalia, while in other situations people carry around pin-flags or wear crucifixes.

Groups serve a number of functions. They can be a way of escaping ourselves and our sense of loneliness. We feel as islands upon ourselves, but the extension of the self towards others helps us alleviate some of those lonely feelings. This can also be a manner of protecting ourselves both physically and psychologically. By being one within a group of people, we sense strength and support, and people are more likely to help someone they perceive as similar to them than a complete stranger.

And in these situations who can be seen as a threat here? The enemy is, in fact, the “other.” In that sense, anybody or anything that represents something other or something different from us can be perceived as a threat. For instance, imagine a family party in which there is a person who does not have any ties to your family. That person, due to his difference, may be looked upon as suspicious; although he can never fully become one with the family (unless he chooses to marry one of the other family members), he can manage to override the differences by showing everyone that he is, essentially, either similar to them (culturally, professionally etc) or that he is, despite his differences, not a threat to the status quo.

The desire to create and belong to groups has been existent since our hunting and gathering days. Basically, our cave ancestors did not want to risk their lives for others unknown to them nor did they wish to provide food to those that did not belong to the group. In each of their clans, they sought also protection from any external threats, which could come in terms of animals or other humans / groups.

It turned to be a good idea to expand the group by creating alliances. Even that is a selective process. If your group is having an alliance with mine and intermarriage would foment and fortify the link between the two, then, ipso facto, this also meant and implied that there are many other groups that are not belonging to mine; they are different to the ideas, values or any other characteristics that I cherish within my own (now extended) group.

Alliances have been an important tool in politics too. We form groups with nations and ideologies that are essentially similar or at least not seen as combative to our worldviews. For example, there are a number of contracts, contacts and organizations ranging from NATO to OPEC and even humanitarian groups, such as Unicef or Médecins sans frontières.

The alliances can be political in nature, or else ideological. In fact, the common dividing factor in the past century was based on political ideology. It was the ideals of communism pitted against those of the West; this clash is often portrayed as socialism versus capitalism. In today's world (years after the Fall of Communism), these distinctions are made based on religion mostly (although religions are used as political and propaganda tools by either party) and so broadly speaking the Middle East is thrown against the West, Islam apparently bumping heads with Christian values (while Islam itself has its own divisions and clashes between its Sunni and Shiite brands).

When we identify with one of the groups and exclude the other, we feel stronger and more accepted within our group, whereas we distrust any member of the other group. The problem is that these perceptions of the other - often based on hearsay - are almost always flawed by being too simple, one-dimensional, stereotypical, and even grotesque.

The Western idea of Muslims is highly distorted, and they are portrayed as forms of caricature, the same way (or even worse) Hollywood movies present the bad guys. This distortion goes both ways and also applies to the other group, i.e. the US being referred to as the devil incarnate.

What then happens is that there are a number of misconceptions that, in turn, give rise to outward prejudice and open violence towards any member of those groups. In Canada, the fact that wearing religious clothing could be a contentious issue among the voters can be only seen as troubling.

The West cannot pride itself on its values of liberty and acceptance by simultaneously attacking some of its own members that belong to other religions. The speeches by Donald Trump are essentially not that different from the radical hatemongers he tries to disassociate himself from, and that people on either side of the spectrum do not fully notice this is alarming, if not downright terrifying.

What can or rather needs to be done in this situation? This is, of course, harder said than done. The turmoils seem to be beyond control and terrorism threats seem to be around any corner. But to generalize and put everyone in the same sinking boat cannot be the right path.

Too see the folly of such thinking, just imagine the following analogy: it would be like claiming that the extreme Christian right speaks for all of Christianity and for all Christians across the globe; one cannot throw together and discriminate against all shades and forms of Christians from radical to liberal believer due to one marginalized and defecting (defective?) group.

This focus on religion harks back to the age of the Crusades. Yet to have this today in our modern age is inexcusable. We have at hand not only knowledge and experience, but also technology to safeguard ourselves from such fallacies.

In the past, people believed those distortions because they not only lacked education and literacy but also they did not have much actual contact with people of other faiths. Moreover, they did not have the Internet. We are at a much more advantageous position and cannot claim ignorance to our defence.

One way to dispell the myth of difference as a threat is to actively engage with others. Segregation only increases distrust and suspicion, but what people in the West should do is to actively reach out for those of different faiths. They can also start reading about Islam itself and see for themselves that this religion (like most) is being distorted and manipulated by those extreme voices.

In fact, I think we should follow Alan Watts' timeless advice in his speech on social conformity “Everyone must play” and see our lives with all its contents and structures as a game. We should stop taking ourselves, our religion, our nation, in short, our “group” so seriously and start seeing it as a form of role-playing.

In any game, you cannot force others to play with you. If they are different, they will have their own game and play by their own rules. Nor do we have to play the same games. We can still say to them that we accept them and have respect for their game, but essentially it is not ours to play; neither group ought to force the other to play something they have no wish or desire to play. That way, we can eliminate conflict and increase tolerance and acceptance.

Finally, diversity is not a threat but an opportunity and even a sign of strength. We cannot claim to be an open society and then exclude others. We should see beyond the scopes and limits of our own group and learn to understand the other and have compassion for them.

We should be flexible enough to know that our group can be extended and that there is indeed room for others; we should not permanently shut our doors but give the “other” a chance or opportunity to enter, should they wish. Chances are once we see them as fully-fleshed and feeling humans instead of grotesque and one-dimensional cardboard figures, we will see similarities between each other and not feel threatened anymore.

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