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What is the ‘other’ and how is it perpetuated in society?

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

There has always been the concept of the ‘Other’ in all civilisations, however, never has it been so refined and weaponised as in modern times with the growth of the ‘West’.

In this context when I refer to Other I mean the below definition.

‘Other’ – ‘denoting a person or thing that is different or distinct from one already mentioned or known about’ in this case different ethnic groups that are not considered to be equal to white western Europeans or in some cases seen as even lower than animals.

But when can we trace this ‘othering’ and growth of the West from?

We can trace it all the way back to the 15th C and the Age of Exploration when Europeans began to explore other continents more extensively and have more interactions with those they met. One of the most impactful examples of this is the voyage of Columbus to the Americas and the subsequent invasion by the conquistadors. When Columbus encountered Arawak Indians in Hispaniola island (Haiti and Dominican Republic) he told the Spanish king and queen that;

"They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three. And they are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs."

What specifically did he consider to be an ‘other’? What did he intend to do that would make them ‘civilised’? What is the contradiction demonstrated here in their methods of civilising that seem to go against what they supposedly stand for?

The source below also represents more contradictions.

On the one hand the Caribs were described by Columbus’ men as being more industrious than the Arawak and having more knowledge of warfare – qualities they admired, but on the other hand Columbus wrote that Spain they might "be led to abandon that inhuman custom which they have of eating men, and there in Castile, learning the language, they will much more readily receive baptism and secure the welfare of their souls.

What different reason has he given this time for the necessity of capturing and subduing them? What same method is he again proposing to ‘civilise’ them which contradicts their so-called civilised nation?

The same contradictions can be seen throughout descriptions of other groups Europeans came into contact with in Africa, Asia and Australasia. They were all assigned labels of either being childlike and simple if they proved to be a welcoming culture or barbaric and inhumane with practices such as cannibalism that in the Caribs case. Archaeologists have been unable to find evidence for this practice. They were all to be enslaved and forced to work for the Europeans with varying degrees of transformations to their cultures, enforced to make it easier to control them. The 15th Century marked the beginnings of the European Empires that persisted into the 20th C with ideologies of so-called race becoming ever more sophisticated to justify, increase and maintain control over millions around the world.

Social Darwinism and Eugenics became the grandfather of race theory enacted into laws by countries like the USA, Nazi Germany and Denmark. This culminated with the British empire, the largest of its kind in History that went on a mission to ‘civilise’ people around the world. It continues on with the G8 with America at the head (Japan being the exception culturally but also has an imperialist past) with the ideology that ‘the West presumably understands the rest of the world better than the rest know themselves’. We currently live in a neo-colonialist age where ‘the West knows the Other’s future better than the Other itself does, for the Other has to still enter that future, whereas the West is at this moment living out that future’. This concept ignores the ancient civilisations that already existed within these cultures that the West colonised directly or indirectly and are now impoverished.

The ‘Other’ in today’s world is most commonly seen in issues of migration. Here in the UK, different standards of empathy and acceptance exist between European immigration from Western Europe compared to Eastern Europe compared to Commonwealth countries and other non-Commonwealth countries. These varying degrees of acceptance stem from assumptions about income but even more so about how different they may be from ourselves. The more of an ‘other’ they are which is unfamiliar and makes us uncomfortable or even suspicious and scared, the more restrictions we want in place to stop them coming into our country. It has been common practice for decades for not only the press to engage in scare mongering and lies but for politicians and columnists to do the same.

In the late 90s it was common to see the newspaper attacks on ‘bogus’ asylum seekers which even this year people had to be reminded again and again that it is not illegal for people to come here on boats and claim asylum whether you have documentation or not. Words like ‘flooded’ and ‘invasion’ over the past few years have become normal when referring to the ‘migrant crisis’ with little mention of Britain’s role in destroying the state of Libya that now openly enslaves people and is a gateway for desperate migrants fleeing poverty and conflict. These are all terms that create an ‘othering’ of human beings with little context, the media stokes the flames of fear people already have.Even more worrying has been people like Katie Hopkins only 5 years back was given the platform in the Sun to call for the use of gunboats instead of rescue ships. She referred to migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’ whose boats should be burned. This kind of language not unlike language used before the Rwandan Genocide, is permitted in mainstream media and continues to reinforce the notion of othering to the point of people not even being seen and deserving of being treated as a human being. In fact, it took until 2017 for Hopkins to be sacked from LBC for a tweet calling for ‘a "final solution" to Islamic terrorism, which some suggested was a reference to the extermination of Jewish people by Hitler.’ Aside from the fact that her numerous statements under the law are inciting hatred and violence on the grounds of race and religion, even more worrying is the popularity that Hopkins and Farage enjoyed despite the myriad of racist views they hold.

Why do you think they were and still remain so popular? British white people represent 80% of the UK population, why do you think there is such a fear of being ‘flooded’ and overwhelmed? How might this be linked to identity? Please feel free to write your ideas into the comments.

Another place that we often see the concept of the ‘other’ is during terrorist attacks. In November 2015 when Paris was tragically struck by a terrorist attack killing 130 people leading to an outpouring of sympathy. An estimated 120 million people changed their Facebook page to include the French flag overlay. In April the same year, 147 people had been killed in a terrorist attack in Kenya. There was no filter for them or outpouring of grief and support. To put this into its full context lets examine this graph. Terrorist attacks in Europe have increased since the Syrian war and in the past 5 years these have claimed about 300 lives. All life is important and must be viewed as such, but to not recognise that some nations are repeatedly under attack is to send the message that their suffering is insignificant and undeserving of compassion.

Why do you think this is so underreported? Aside from proximity, why do you think empathy is less?

This is an extract from the Identity section on my course ‘Introduction to Black British History and reducing racial bias’ which is now open for enrolment with a 25% discount, available for a limited time.

I look forward to reading your comments regarding this topic and the questions I have posed.

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