The ‘Other’

Getting into the academic year now, and historians who teach in my area often deal with the concept of the ‘other’. We use it especially when we talk about Europe’s trading and colonising expansion into Asia, Africa, and elsewhere from the sixteenth century onwards. We mainly use the word to describe how Europeans tended to draw sharp distinctions between themselves and the people they met in these strange new regions of the world.

At the extremes, these Europeans wondered whether these new people possessed souls, or else they placed them low down in a ‘hierarchy of races’ that relied upon the spurious pseudo-science of the day. (Unsurprisingly, such systems generally placed Europeans at the top.)

Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas berated his fellow Spaniards for their treatment of indigenous South Americans in the 16th century. 'Have they not souls?' he asked. 'Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourself?'

In slightly more subtle everyday ways, Europeans cast Asians and Africans as ‘other’ by routinely attributing to them all the characteristics that they wanted to believe were not true of good Europeans. So Indians were deceitful and sex-obsessed where Europeans were trustworthy and restrained; Africans were beholden to superstition and cruel in their so-called cures, where Europeans boasted a civilised outlook and modern medicine; Japanese were passive and crafty, where Europeans were lively, entrepreneurial and honourable. To ‘other’ someone, then, was to deal with them or to talk or write about them in ways that kept them at arm’s length, always slightly strange, unknowable, and potentially dangerous.

‘Othering’ hasn’t always been just a political or legal tool. It comes from somewhere more fundamental, more personal: the anxiety of the individual over who he or she really is. This anxiety plays out in our relationships every single day, of course, since other people reflect ourselves back to us, and I see a different ‘me’ depending on who I’m with. It becomes political or systematic if I have some sort of power over these other people – force of personality, perhaps; financial or violent advantage; superior science or technology. Now there’s a chance for me to control or escape this natural insecurity about myself by forcefully attributing to others all the things I fear or dislike about myself. I end up feeling better about myself, but at the price of half-believing what I’ve said about these others – deepening any fear or suspicion I may have felt towards them already, and separating myself from them even further.

'Neti, neti'

If this is the psychological and social meaning of the ‘other’, there is a different but related meaning in philosophy and religion. It’s the idea that the ‘ground of Being’, the ‘divine’, or the underlying truth of things is so completely other that you can be sure of only one thing: whatever you say about it will in some way be false. This is the neti, neti of Sanskrit (one of India’s sacred languages): it means ‘not this, and not that’. It is also the message that Isaiah received through his experience of the divine: ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways’. Similarly (though to equate different religious traditions would be too simple), the Buddha gave one of his followers the verbal equivalent of a clip round the ear for asking about ‘God’, since the human concept of ‘God’ doesn’t – can’t – usefully describe anything.

Sigmund Freud. 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'...

The most powerful critics of religion constantly remind us of this ‘otherness’. Whether or not they would wish their work to be used in this way, the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx take their fellow human beings to task for creating safe, comforting images of ‘God’ – to which they can pray, on which they can rely, and onto which they can offload responsibility for their lives, especially when life is frightening or seems to be going wrong. There are perhaps few people for whom the image of a bearded man on a throne survives beyond childhood, but psychologists of religion tell us that many do get stuck with an anthropomorphic sense of some entity ‘who’ is a bit like them, located in a particular place out there somewhere.

So what does this have to do with the ‘other’ of colonial history?

The connection, I think, lies in what religious traditions and more recent spiritual movements do with this frustrating information about the ‘unknowable': they say that since it is always ‘other’, always unfamiliar and different from us, one of the best practical things we can do is to relinquish that need for rationalizing control and that preoccupation with self that prevents us from allowing the ‘other’ in everyday life – a person, a place, a situation – to approach us on its own terms; drawing us out of ourselves, surprising us or even shocking us.

Most of us rarely do this: ordinarily, there is very little in our experience that we won’t seek to domesticate somehow – deciding what we think it is, whether we like it, whether we’re prepared to have dealings with it, etc. It’s often so automatic that we don’t notice it. But in letting go of that, they say, we find that the ‘other’, the unknown, takes hold of us quite powerfully. Paul Tillich talked about it in terms of being ‘arrested by God’.

It’s difficult. But just as Stella is ‘reassuringly expensive’, so too this sort of thing – whether or not you choose to cast it as spiritual/religious – is ‘reassuringly difficult’.

So in both the colonial historical sense and in the religious or spiritual sense, the ‘other’ tends to challenge how we see ourselves and the world. The difficult but creative response might be to avoid the urge to keep the ‘other’ at a distance, with all the damage that involves, and instead to open ourselves up to what the likes of Bede Griffiths have talked about as our ‘completion’ – a process that we can’t accomplish for ourselves, but for which we rely upon the ‘other’.

Bede Griffiths - for whom Indian understandings of the divine impressed him constantly with its vital 'otherness', in ways that his Catholicism too often did not.





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