Us vs them: the sinister techniques of Othering and how to avoid them

Rapid social change causes all humans anxiety but our response to this need not be negative, despite the best efforts of our political leaders and media

We are in the midst of a rapidly changing world. More than 300 million people are currently living outside their homelands. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise- from the Rohingya people forced out of Myanmar in what many are calling the world’s latest genocide, to neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in an action President Trump pointedly refused to condemn.

Humans can only process a limited amount of change in a short period of time without experiencing anxiety. It’s a natural human reaction- but how we respond to that nervousnes is social.

When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent reply is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society- a process I call” Othering “. An alternative response is watching the change in demographics as positive, and regarding the apparent other as enhancing our life and who we are. This is what I refer to as” belonging and bridging “.

Othering is not about penchant or detesting someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the preferred group. It is largely driven by political leaders and the media, as opposed to personal contact. Overwhelmingly, people don’t “know” those because this is Othering.

So while today’s global nervousnes has been precipitated by globalisation, technology and a changing economy, demographics play a crucial role in the process of Othering. The attributes of who gets defined as Other was different from place to place, and can be based upon race, religion, nationality or speech. It is not these attributes themselves that are the problem, of course, but how they are made salient, and how they are manipulated.

Rohingya refugees at a makeshift shelter after fleeing violence in Myanmar. Photo: Rehman Asad/ Barcroft Images

I am therefore particularly concerned with how Othering shows up in today’s power structure: how it is used to divide and dehumanise groups, and capture and reshape government and organizations. For society’s leaders and culture play an oversized role in helping us make sense of change- and so greatly affect our responses to nervousnes.

In the United States, politicians used to engage in what scholar Ian Haney-Lopez calls” dog whistles”- they could construct references to Others but only in a coded style; never saying ” those Mexicans” or” those Muslims”, for example. President Trump, however, has opened a space where people are emboldened to be more explicit. We now have not only our nation’s leadership but many of our information networks amplifying these explicit calls to omit and dehumanise.

The rhetoric and speech coming from Trump has begun to both define and normalise Othering. This is a threat to all the things we value. When Mexicans can be called ” rapists and drug dealers” in direct contradiction to the facts, it becomes a much easier step to call for their deportation, and for a literal wall to divide us.

Exclusion and dehumanisation

The language being used by many national leaders not only activates people’s anxiety and fear around a perceived Other, it creates new procedures of exclusion and dehumanisation.

While it is common to focus only on economic changes to explain the rise of right-wing nationalists and Othering, the loss of economic power is not the only thing stirring nervousnes around the globe. Sweden is experiencing a rise of group-based patriotism, yet its economy is not suffering. Trump voters included a large number of affluent whites , not just the poor or working class.

It’s not that the economy is unimportant, it’s just that it doesn’t tell the whole story. After a number of important civil rights victories in the US in the 1960 s, the conservative upper-class strategised how to trade on smouldering white Southern rancour of these gains. With the Southern Strategy of stoking white rancor, they succeeded in remaking the Republican Party- ultimately moving government away from protecting people and towards protecting capital.

Conservative elites know how to strategically create and use fear of a perceived Other, by organising and fabricating anxiety. When Nixon began employing the term “law and order”, his popularity was cemented among a certain base because he was appealing to a specific kind of conservative white anxiety: not primarily about chores, but instead the changing social order. This was not precipitated by a specific economic downturn, yet the outcome of Nixon’s strategy was the securing of an economy rigged for the rich.

People don’t just figure out on their own that collectively they need to be afraid of another group. Leadership plays a crucial role. Often people who have been living with one another for years are made to feel abruptly that those changes have become threatening.

Richard Nixon cemented his popularity by appealing to conservative dreads about the changing social order. Photograph: Wally McNamee/ Corbis via Getty Images

The recent rhetoric around people who are undocumented in the US, many of whom have lived here for their whole lives, has created a culture of anxiety for millions, has demonised children, and has created distrust and anger in communities where none had existed before.

A friend from the deep south tells the story of her parent asking with all honesty if he should turn in to the authorities a waiter at a restaurant he suspects doesn’t have “papers”. Five years ago, such concerns wasn’t even part of his consciousness, and the same waiter had been serving him for far longer than that. Who activated that fear? A demagogue understands the power of speech and the deep ontological forces that are essential to how people experience their lives. It’s not necessary that these demagogues believe what they say.

The narratives we tell, and live, are not about facts but our values, fears and hopes- all of which, to a certain degree, are malleable. Our narrations don’t just reflect them, they also shape them. While anxiety about change is natural, Othering is not. Othering is socially and culturally constructed.

So how do we respond to our collective nervousnes today? Either we “bridge”, reaching across to other groups and towards our inherent, shared humanity and connect, while recognising that we have changes; or we “break”, pulling away from other groups and making it easier to tell and believe false stories of” us vs them”, then supporting practices that dehumanise the “them”.

Part of the solution to Othering must come from the tales we tell. As the world undergoes profound shifts, how do we construct true societies of belonging? We can look to Canada as one positive example. While it still has its difficult issues, Canada has said to its multi-racial, multi-ethnic population,” Keep your identity “. Canadians have held on to their religious and ethnic backgrounds while they also connect with others. And the far right-wing in Canada has not cracked 10%.

If we are to combat the rising tide of extremism across the globe, we must actively create bridges across change, and resist strategic exploitation of our collective anxiety. For when we bridge, we not only open up to others, we also open up to change in ourselves- and actively participate in co-creating a society to which we can all belong.

The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our changes, in a society where” we the people” includes all the people.

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