Recently I have been in several conversations focused on the notion of ‘the other’. In all of these conversations the person I was speaking with seemed to take the position that the ‘othering’ process was an innate human behaviour and that the only way to get people to stop ‘othering’ would be for us to find (or be found by) another intelligent species somewhere else in the universe.
Quick note: the othering process is the human tendency to believe that the group (race, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, country, sexual orientation, species etc.) that they are a part of is inherently the ‘right’ way to be human. As a consequence of this, people who other consciously, or subconsciously, believe that anyone who is not apart of their group is a threat, an enemy or a liability that must be converted to conform immediately to the norms and standards of their group, subjugated permanently, or eradicated completely.
There are literally countless examples of this phenomenon throughout history that continue into contemporary times:
Back to the main thought, which is that while engaging in conversation about ‘the other’ I found that a considerable number of people think this process is inevitable (i.e. humans must other something). Using that rationale, it logically follows that the only way for us to stop doing it to each other is if we find another intelligent species to do it to (i.e. we will stop fighting and discriminating against each other and will turn our aggression and prejudice towards another species). I personally believe the opposite, not only because I am an optimist, but also because I believe I am someone who is consciously aware of the othering process and attempt not to do it, and try and speak out against it when I see it being done. Now, that does not mean all of humanity will also stop doing it, but it does mean that othering is not something that is inevitable. In the right social environment and with the right educational background, our tendency to group ourselves and feel some type of animosity towards another group can be overcome.
Why do we other?
The phenomenon of othering has its roots in our evolutionary history. We know from primatological studies that group solidarity is exceptionally important in all of the African apes. Knowing who is, and who isn’t a member of your group is exceptionally important for reasons intimately connected to survival. And basic evolution theory states that any behaviour or trait that confers a survival advantage will be selected for; and the stronger the survival advantage, the stronger it will be selected for. In the case of ‘othering’ behaviour, it probably became an extremely valuable behaviour that would have become permanently fixed within our lineage millions of years ago. Whenever territory, food, and mates were scarce (which would have been frequently, and in most cases permanently), intra-species competition would have been strong and othering behaviour would have been selected for. Forming a group can allow you to align yourself with other individuals altruistically to maximize your own (and everyone else in the groups) ability to acquire territory, food and mating opportunities.
However, this comes at a cost. It forces you to adopt an “us vs. them” mentality.
This mentality is clearly an evolutionary relic that we have inherited. However, in contemporary times it does far more harm than good, and I struggle to think of how this behaviour would confer a strong selection advantage in the modern world. Regardless, since natural selection does not really affect our species in the way it affects every other species anymore we are probably stuck with the brain structures that produce it.
So is othering here to stay?
Despite our violent and resource scarce history that has engrained the othering behaviour, I believe it would be irresponsible to argue that we cannot unlearn it and best our instincts. If we as a species unquestioningly accepted some of the instinctual thoughts, feelings and emotions, our world would look a lot different today. To give an example of this, a few years ago Professor David Buss attempted to find out how many of his undergraduate students had ever given any serious thought to killing someone. He requested them to answer (and if necessary elaborate) upon this question. He discovered that 91 per cent of the men and 84 per cent of the women in his undergraduate courses had had homicidal fantasies at some point in their lives. However, none of these students had a criminal past and I highly doubt any of them actually acted on their thoughts. Just because we are programmed to occasionally think, feel and emote in ways that are commonly viewed as archaic and barbaric in contemporary society that does not mean we should (or have to) give in to these primal instincts. The othering phenomenon is no different.
I believe that if you did a similar experiment to David Buss’s and asked any group of people if they had ever had racist, misogynistic, homophobic, ethnocentric, etc. thoughts the results would be strikingly similar (if not higher) to the murder question. Thinking of all of humanity as an equal and united whole is a specific philosophical view that must be learned, it is in no way natural for humans to grow up and believe this without being taught. We are programmed to divide, compare and compete with others that are culturally, genetically or otherwise different and distinct from ourselves. It maximized fitness for our species over the course of evolutionary time. However, we are not slaves to our biology. We do not need to do this, and it is certainly not necessary to do it anymore.
Although the discovery of a highly advanced alien species (or the more likely scenario, being found by a highly advanced alien species) would certainly cause all of humanity to unite instantly and transfer our othering instinct onto that species, I don’t believe it is necessary. I believe othering can be unlearned and I will remain forever optimistic that our ability to unite will overcome any mechanisms that would see us hate difference, rather than accept and embrace difference.