Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Other

The next time you meet a good friend on the street, extend your hand to their chest (if its a girl friend, be strategic). Place your hand on the chest and begin talking in a warm and friendly manner. If they ask what you are doing, tell them its an experiment, ignore the hand and talk.

Once you are done conversing or your friend is too weirded out, ask how they felt about the interaction, The social embarrassment of having someone's hand stuck on your chest, not withstanding, what do they say?

Did they say that even though your words were familiar and friendly, the fact they couldn't get close to you, the fact that the body language dictated distance, made them feel hurt, rejected, confused? Arrange the same thing to happen to you. How do you feel?

In anthropology the above exchange is called "Othering'. It happens all the time but without the hand on the chest. The body language without contact suggest the same thing. Even the choice of language, while still warm and friendly still leaves cues that the "Other" is uninvited.

The "Other" is that exotic, mysterious person, who is not like you by race, religion, nationality, etc., and therefore elicits little trust. The "Other" is encountered in different scenarios. It is the encounter that defines how you place the person. How much do you trust them? Your reaction may be subconscious, so if you read this and feel bad that you are not inclusive enough, there is hope.

When faced with the "Other" you have a choice of what to do with it.

Your first choice is to ignore it. Stick with your own kind. if you are placed face to face with the "Other" and engage them with great discomfort (fear?), and keep the contact minimal. Or else, stay away from where contact is inevitable.

The second choice, which is equally as extreme, is to abandon your own ways and embrace their way. You engage only or mostly with them, you act according to their social rules, you learn their language and customs.

Or, there is a third alternative. It is a middle ground where each is accepted on their own terms. Both sides engage and learn from each other. They create a hybridization where both continue together.

Where I live, i encounter the first scenario more often than any other. I am usually the "Other". I'm a walking ambiguity in any case and am "Othered" by all sides. When I'm not "Othered" in an encountere, I find it shocking but pleasing and revel in the camaraderie.

I just finished reading Clea Koff's book, The Bone Woman. It is her story as a forensic anthropoologist investigating the devastating Rwanda and Yugoslavian genocides. Like Owsley, (mentioned in a previous blog), she details her finds so that you see the world through her eyes. (I also suspect the book was the psychological debriefing the UN did not give her.)

The important lesson for the reader (and Koff) was to ascertain the rationale for neighbours and friends to turn with such unmitigated violence on each other. She pegs it as Government increasing their power using propaganda tools such as race, religion, and history to whip the masses into a killing machine.

What scares me is that every time I go out and engage with the society around me and am "Othered", the more I see the seeds that if the Government propaganda changes pitches, I can become a victim of mass hysteria. We got glimpses after 9/11 and the early part of the War on Terrorism as people called the authorities to say they were "worried" about their neighbours and their ("Other") behaviour.

We smile at each other as we pass on the street. But that hand is still firmly placed on my chest.

C'est la vie! C'est la guerre!

To further your reading:

Bonnycastle, Stephen. 1996. In Search of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory. 2nd Ed. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press. (See Chapter 16, pp. 211-217 for a descriptive definition of "Other")

Koff, Clea. 2004. The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologists Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Canada: Random House Inc.

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