Between & Beyond: The Other

The Other is a concept I have brought up from time to time in this column, but its relevance is tied to a number of issues of supreme importance in the news cycle lately. The concept invites us to understand how groups of humans, i.e. cultures, often utilize an objectified definition of outlying cultures/groups to fortify their own identity. The intentionality of this behavior varies, but maybe never quite deliberate. Take old wartime propaganda for example. Germans or Japanese were often caricaturized as animals in American posters, thus dehumanizing and objectifying them as threat and enemy, therefore unifying the American cause/identity. Elsewhere in history we can find colonialists depicting indigenous people as less than human in order to advance their imperial agenda and fortify their identity in service of God. Both examples seem antiquated, but as I said, this behavior lies just below the threshold of our own awareness.

The first instance comes from Sam Harris and Bill Maher. Harris appeared on a recent episode of Maher’s show in order to slam basic tenants of Islam much to the dismay of panelist Ben Affleck. Harris is no stranger to demonizing Islam. The largest chapter in the book that brought him to prominence, The End Of Faith, does exactly that to an even more pointed degree. Maher and Harris both fall short of nuance constantly and love condemning with broad strokes. Whether his target is Republicans or the religious, it’s been Maher’s curmudgeonly shtick for years, and the masturbatory entertainment it has created for middle-of-the-road Democrats with superiority complexes does a lot of harm. That shtick in and of itself creates the Other. To stand on the precipice of righteousness looking down at the unwashed masses is neither productive nor particularly Leftist. It digs deeper the gulf of distance that exists in this world and it’s also just fucking boring.

It’s built into us somehow. We learn it as part of our culture. We have equated righteousness with the ability to caricaturize. Gone are the basic tenants of compassion that used to be tied to the Left. The concept of the Other is tied to the Ebola issue as well. Somehow, an outpouring of literal support in terms of donations arrive when all kinds of areas of the world are hit with natural disasters, but official numbers on relief money to fight Ebola have paled in comparison. Africa has long been neglected in our view of humanity. I can’t help but think that the only explanation for a difference in response to an epidemic rather than an earthquake has roots in a sense of fault. Reference to the handling of dead victims was often made during early reports, citing the cultural difference as the prime factor in its rapid spread.

Often the idea of the Other masks the true nature of the crime of inequality. As in, even here in America, when we talk about the violence inherent in urban areas populated by minorities all we wind up doing is masking the actual central tenet which is time and time again poverty. Poverty is a real condition that breeds all kinds of results and essentially in a just world with the abundance we have all but squandered, poverty should not exist. Even when poverty is addressed, it is often twisted by way of the idea of fault. Poverty is often cast as an individual problem that should be addressed by the individual who has of yet refused to pick himself up by his bootstraps.

I have often made reference here of how our culture is rapidly decentralizing, but in the wake of that process we experience echoes of the old model. Now that Ebola is here in America the essential broad stroke approach is being applied by the voices that exist in our internet culture. On one end of the spectrum you have the science acolytes who decry media panic and assure us all that Ebola is not a problem for an advanced society like America. On the other end, rumblings of conspiracy theory are taking shape as the idea of quarantines and travel restrictions stoke Orwellian fears. But these, two perspectives are based on caricatures far removed from the actual human beings involved. The supreme selfishness that lies at the heart of our culture is what to fear in the face of Ebola. The façade of order and service that fronts our government and its agencies will prove to be the deciding factor. We have already seen the cracks and faults. The response to Hurricane Katrina was abysmal and inadequate and the response to Ebola is the same. We should be afraid because all of our science and technology can do no good in a broken system rooted solely in the purpose of profit and the self-service of those who perpetuate it.