Being the “other” and being “like”

In a recent Mother Jones article <http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/05/birtherism-otherism-romney-gingrich-2012>, the new anti-Obama rhetoric targets his “otherness” now that the birther argument is dead. Quote from this article: that Obama’s “worldview is dramatically different than any president, Republican or Democrat, we’ve had… He grew up more as a globalist than an American. To deny American exceptionalism is in essence to deny the heart and soul of this nation.”

One of the hardest things I’ve come across over the years in America that the whole concept of embracing diversity is more about how different people look rather than how different they think. In one of my recent experiences, a Christian minister from Kansas attacked me and said that “People come to America to be like Americans, so be aware and act like an American, I don’t care how different you are, you’re here, you have to be normal or else!” I can see his point in that he believes some people use culture as an excuse to justify their behavior that not all may disagree with, but the problem with this rhetoric is that it passes more judgments than it does ask questions.

Some of the questions I like to ask are “Why does he behave or think that way? Where is he coming from? What is he trying to accomplish?” The moment I start saying “Oh, those stupid Americans, those idiot Christians” is when I have failed at being compassionate and a globalist. As Rousseau once said “Do not assume, and you will never be mistaken”.

For those of us who try to adopt the globalist perspective (or ended up with it inadvertently from our experience as Third Culture Kids), we see through the lens that sees folks from many countries, cultures, and races, as “like” in terms of the essence of
our relationships rather than as the dreaded “other” that limits our understanding and acceptance of people by designating them as different from our own perceived standards of normality.

An old joke from my college anthropology professor: “Enough about you, let’s talk about me!” in reference to how the typical subconscious approach to observing people of different cultures, whether the laymen or the scholar, is to compare against your own culture. Your own culture is your default basis for understanding and interpreting things, and until you realize that cultures, cultural identities and associations, behaviors and mindsets are simply alternative perspectives, you won’t get over the idea of your culture being superior to different ones.

For the most part, it’s easier to see people from different cultural groups and nationalities as “like” as opposed to being “others” when you interact with them or live amongst them. One of the bigger culprits I’ve seen that perpetuates this “other”-ness is television. No matter how open-minded some may think they are from watching Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the Travel Channel, no matter how much of a peak into different worlds and cultures that we see through these programs, there is the safety of the remote control and a television screen that filters the experience of movement between cultures, and resulting culture shock. The world you see on your television screen is another world that doesn’t exist unless you’re at home after work and find no better program to be an opiate for your senses.

“Look at the Asians! Look at the Africans! Look at those Scottish guys wearing dresses! Ha ha! Don’t change the channel yet, it’s hilarious” From a distance, it’s very easy to laugh at someone who isn’t in earshot. But say you were forced to sit on a subway train with someone regularly, and eventually have to talk to him because you dropped your wallet and he returned it to you.

That guy in his kilt becomes Ewan, your friend and occasional drinking buddy, and when you’ve been with him for a while, the fact that you occasionally see him in a kilt becomes arbitrary, something you think of only when you go into a store and ask if your friend has come by already: “Hey have you seen a tall guy come on here with a shaved head and a little beard, and round glasses? He looks like he’s wearing a dress, but it’s actually a kilt, you know, what guys in Scotland wear sometimes, since the 16th century and at Highland games?” He is no longer an “other” and people at a Highland game aren’t “a bunch of cross-dressing men in skirts”, but rather “people who are like my friend Ewan” in your mind.

Movement between cultures should not be something that is a unique characteristic of global nomads and Third Culture Kids, but a fundamental requirement for human beings in this brave new world. No matter how much you cling to a cultural identity and behavior, living in and interacting with those outside of your familiarity zone will fundamentally change you and your perspective. The world does not revolve around you, but it is all around you. Until we learn to see people as “like” rather than “others”, we will constantly be alienated, isolated, and never feel a part of the greater global community. When you are a part of a community, you see people as fellow human beings, rather than as foreigners, barbarians, savages, strangers, and terrorists.

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