Fearing “the Other” in November 2016

On Monday, NPR did a story on a newish vocabulary word making the rounds this […]

Bryan J. / 3.9.16

On Monday, NPR did a story on a newish vocabulary word making the rounds this election cycle, one that touches on last week’s thoughts on attempts to define an “Evangelical.” The word is “Otherize,” and if you have three minutes and want to hear more, check the story below:

Generally, to “otherize” someone is to label them as different and suggest they are against you in a zero-sum competition. Although it is a term often used to describe a method of victimization, it’s also a strategy that anyone, including victims, can employ. In the election context, “otherizing” becomes a political game used in primaries to whip up the most impassioned voters to support your cause. It’s a little different than drawing lines between self-identifying Evangelicals and “real Evangelicals,” because the two camps aren’t in political competition with each other.

Imagine, as in the TV show Parenthood, a child is adopted by a couple who also have a biological daughter. When the newly adopted child enters the house, the biological child soon feels threatened by what he or she perceives as competition for the parent’s attention and love. How does the biological child justify their fear? “He’s not really family.” “She’s not my sister.” Usually, that conflict disappears when the biological child realizes her parent’s love and care is boundless, or when the adopted sibling is seen as an additional source of love and attention. To “otherize” is a defense mechanism, one rooted primarily in fear.


It isn’t just that democrats or republicans get labeled as “the other,” but different races, classes and backgrounds as well. Trump is notorious for othering immigrants, both legal and illegal, as much as Bernie Sanders is notorious for othering the “1%.” Both candidates thrive on conflict, deserved or undeserved, rooted in the zero-sum game of the shaky U.S. Economy. American Evangelicals and Secular Humanists are equally good at othering each other. The cultural strawmen that each present points to a larger struggle over control of the public square. Usually, as in all these circumstances, when a message can be boiled down to “they are different” and “they are the problem,” othering is the culprit.

What’s fascinating about this defense mechanism is its ubiquity. You and I do it just as much as the candidates and talking heads. Think about the parents that have chosen the radically different method of childrearing–how easy it is to add on “they are the problem” to “they are different.” Or think about the narcissism of small differences that pull apart factions within a church denomination. Wherever you find that “there can be only one” (Highlander) — and certainly, there are times in life where it’s true that “there can be only one” — be prepared to find othering at work. One president, one election winner, one style of perfect parenting, one righteous denomination, one best music format, one maximized financial planning method.

vangogh_samaritaan_grtThe Bible’s way of getting around the conundrum is to declare that “the game” isn’t zero-sum. God is king in heaven. He is the arbiter of blessing and curse, so life’s problems can’t be totally pinned on “the other” if he’s in control. The Father doesn’t fool with our attempts to otherize. In fact, any time Bible characters point to others and say “what about them,” the divine response is usually “this isn’t about them- it’s about you and me.” 

This is Jesus’s response to attempts at othering the Galileans whose blood Pilate had shed during a synagogue service (Luke 13), or the attempt to otherize the man born blind (John 9). In both circumstances, Jesus says that we can’t write off those experiencing misfortune as sinners, i.e. “the other,” because if we aren’t made right with God, our fates will be similar. We can’t justify our attempts to otherize in scripture when God’s commandments can be boiled down to love God and love “others.”

As long as “the other” is in competition for life’s most important things, e.g., food, water, shelter, resources, accolades, political power, etc., there will be an unflattering and primal instinct to compete and defeat. It should come as no surprise, then, that political rhetoric is reaching a fever pitch as God is politely but firmly escorted from the public square. But that’s another story for another time.

Ultimately, “othering” comes down to fear. And it is this fear, the fear of losing that zero-sum life competition, which is going unaddressed at present. Perhaps it is baptized under “the mantle of anger” or diverted into categories of frustration, mistrust, or patriotism. Marilyn Robinson’s oft quoted adage applies here in spades: “no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.”

I won’t suggest that forgiveness, with its humbling reminder that humanity is bound together by its flaws rather than its successes, is the answer to our attempts to otherize–because NPR has already started making the case. In this piece from 2014 on the Rwandan Genocide, teachers discuss teaching the concept of “othering” to students as a way of developing socio-emotional growth. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen the documentary referenced in the interview. But you can hear the secular minds in this piece wrestling with how forgiveness is equally powerful and powerless, a way of reconciling with those who otherized to the point of murder.

If you’re the political type, it might be a good practice this election season to keep some pen and paper handy and tally attempts at othering you see in debates, commercials, or think pieces. But then again, that’s only one small step away from trying to otherize the political machine instead of begrudgingly accepting our commonality with it. So if we’re really in the mood for a good humbling, it might be better to keep track of how we do it ourselves instead.