It will be in just over a month that those many of us across the globe who engage in academic pursuits will pen this year’s last lines and close our newest volumes. Graduation ceremonies across all of civilization will mark milestones and achievements; successes and futures. Some of us will climb up to that alter which is the podium and give offering of our words, advice and well wishes to those throngs seated below in freshly pressed black robes. Many others, long out of the academy, will use the time to give homage to the best such offerings in recent memory. One that seems to garner much attention is the offering of David Foster Wallace at Kenyan College’s 2005 commencement.
In his turn to play the role of intellectual bishop, he gave the advice to remain cognizant of the depth of humanity in those that surround us and to be “able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” To remind one’s self that surrounding the world which we have created by casting others as minor characters resides seven billion other worlds in which we are but those nondescript players. Wallace’s offering, then, was one of sonder; the realization that every random passerby, every person on the freeway, every stranger sitting faceless in a freshly pressed black robe is living a life as complex and as hectic and as unique as your own, that you will never, ever see.
But so many of us remain blithely ignorant to this reality. It is much easier to cast these deep, rich actors as simple straw men with one dimensional goals. This, unfortunately, is a reality that, while unconscionably false, is easy to sell. It is a reality that is evoked time and again by those salesmen in power who seek to influence the way in which our thoughts are organized for their own ends. To buy their product. To donate to their cause. To get them re-elected.
In this ostensibly simple exchange lies the single most dangerous idea that humanity has ever forged. A weapon as old as conscious thought. The cognitive bias responsible for every single episode of human misery and every imparted injustice. That omnipresent wraith known as Otherism.
Otherism: the exclusion of a person based on their perceived diversions from an acceptable norm.
In fairness, the first uses of this weapon were most likely defensive. If a person approached my group who looked radically different in some way, they posed an unknown threat to my kind; unknown maladies, unknown intentions, and unknown rituals. It was a defensive act that pushed that new person out past the perimeter of what our group would allow and condone. The simple idea that the unknown person is dangerous and must be shunned to protect ourselves is one that coddled us from a minor bud on the tree of life into an indomitable species able to rearrange our realities as no species ever had been before.
But as villages gave way to the idea of the city-state, and as that gave way to the concept of the nation, the consequences of Otherism began to seem less relevant. As automobiles and steam engines and aeroplanes began to knit our once isolated villages together into larger conglomerations, Otherism began to seem more outmoded. And as imperialism fell to positivism fell to postmodernism, the consequences of Otherism began to be reviled as dangerous.
It is an insidious specter that causes much suffering but is rarely blamed. Otherism could be found amongst the ghettos and internment camps of the Third Reich. It was silently observing the madness wrought by its own work during the Cold War. In more recent memory, it can be seen crouching in the shadows of Ferguson’s most bloodied streets. You can glance it behind the black flags and stolen arms of the Islamic State. It can be found obscured among the masses of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party. Otherism is in our politics of women and of immigrants. It leads protesters of tar sands and hydraulic fracturing to be tried as home grown terrorists. It makes the suffering of child laborers in far off lands a simple statistic. It underlies the very institution of nationalism.
All of this calamity; all of this malice; all of this suffering that makes people cry out against the injustice of incalculable numbers of oppressors all traces back to that fundamental idea. That any difference represents a threat against which we must defend ourselves and our own kind.
Please do not ask me how we defeat this idea. I do not know. How does one fight against something that is as deeply imbedded in the human psyche as the liver is embedded in the human body? Otherism is something we all lean on. It underlies decisions as banal as which line to get in at the check out to decisions as extreme as which people are deserving of genocide.
It is doubtful that this part of us can ever be defeated, but perhaps we can find ways to restrain it. Perhaps if we go back to that idea of sonder we may start to find the beginning of a defense against our own evolution. That realization that every single person who ever was, and is, and who will ever be is living a life as complex as ours and yet we will never, ever see it. If we dare expect that our world will continue despite our worst intentions, we must find a way to defuse this most insidious weapon that we have devised. We will not continue to persist as nations, as a planet, or as a species if we do not.
Realizing that this idea of Otherism is always present would be a wise place for each individual to consider starting. Because this is not a demon that will be excised by the bravest of human warriors; it is but a tiny mite in the human condition that each person must identify and banish. Because, to return to the words of David Foster Wallace, “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see.”