Don’t “Other” Other People

Most people aren’t familiar with the idea of “othering,” but they are familiar with what it is. They’ve seen it. They’ve done it to other people, and they’ve had it done to them.

To “other” a group of people is to devalue their lives, welfare, and concerns. It’s not new, nor is it done only by humans. In their own way, lower animals do it too.

The reason it’s so common is that it’s hard-wired into our biology by evolution. Animals tend to help their genetic relatives, and they tend to fight or flee non-relatives. They use group membership as one way to identify their genetic relatives.

As a result, animals tend to help members of their group and to fight or flee non-members. Whether the animals are beetles, bats, chimps, or humans, it works the same.

The difference of humans is that we can recognize and understand what we’re doing. Unlike lower animals, we can choose not to do it.

You might think that bias applies only to groups like race or political party, but it can apply to any kind of group. As Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson observed in The Social Conquest of Earth:

“Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups, then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when experimenters created the groups arbitrarily … participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their ‘opponents’ to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent.”

Now do a thought-experiment: Think of a group you dislike. It can be a political party, another race, another nation, or another religion. How do you feel about them?

Do you rate them as “less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, and less competent”? That’s your group bias talking: you have “othered” them. It prevents you from seeing them as they really are and from taking their concerns seriously. Even worse, it prevents members of different groups from cooperating for mutual benefit. Instead, they vilify and fight each other when rational people could make peace and work together.

Yes, some people actually are unfair, untrustworthy, and incompetent. But if you’ve othered all the members of their group, you won’t be able to distinguish the good from the bad. You will see only “the other.”

Othering people is especially dangerous when minds are clouded by misinformation and anger. It can lead to violence and can destroy good societies. We face that situation right now.

I don’t care which “side” you think you’re on. Don’t let your emotions overwhelm your reason. Stop and think.

Do you really believe that members of opposing group X are all homicidal maniacs who must be destroyed before they destroy you? That there’s no way to live in peace — or even better, to cooperate for mutual benefit?

That kind of grim situation doesn’t happen nearly as often as people lead themselves to believe — right before they embark on their own sprees of mindless destruction.

Stop and think. Please. You’re a human being. Don’t act like you’re just a stupid animal that can only hate and fight because that’s what its instincts tell it to do.

Don’t “other” other people.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Life, Political Science, Psychology, Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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