Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Other

Colored pencils

I may be naïve, especially when it comes to political theory. But I believe the root problem we face in this country in a time of divided politics is that we tend too often to see people in cohesive and monolithic groups and then identify them as “the other.”

“The other” is scary. It is defined as unknown, also unknowable, not like us, not approachable, not possessing our own core values, not responding to our most basic hopes and fears … not really human. The other is the bogeyman, the monster, the unnamable thing that hides plainly visible but also out of sight, under the bed or in the closet. The other is the dark. The other is danger.

This fear of core difference is so buried in the human consciousness that it might go back to earlier times, when human beings were not all one species but divided by actual differences in their basic genome. Forty or fifty thousand years ago—that is, two thousand generations or more ago1Homo sapiens wandered up out of the African Rift Valley and met an earlier form, H. neanderthalensis, in the forests of southern Europe. How the older model differed from the newer in terms of bone structure, braincase size, intellectual capabilities, motor skills, and social structure is still open to question. We know that a certain amount of interbreeding took place, because modern humans of European descent have been shown to carry about four percent of genes identified as Neanderthal, which are not present in humans who remained in Africa or took a different, more easterly route out of the continent.

Back at that meeting in the forest, the Neanderthals really were the other. Maybe they were tougher, or stronger, or clumsier, more or less energetic, or simply less sophisticated in their speaking, grooming, and eating habits. Maybe they just smelled wrong, so that only the most sexually adventurous among the H. sapiens band would try to pin down and mount one of their females—or not resist too strongly when one of their males tried the same thing. But while there may have been some interbreeding, there never was a coalescence. H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis remained as separate human species and did not disappear into a new and improved—or devolved—human form. We know this because Europeans, even with that admixture of Neanderthal genes, are still thoroughly H. sapiens. Their genetics do not differ from those of human beings that remained in Africa or settled in Asia, other than those unimportant and easily blended genetic variations that all humans carry.2

But that early encounter with a different form of human being, layered on previous encounters up the line with Denisovans, members of H. erectus, and other hominins who were almost but not quite human, may have left a psychic scar. Certainly we don’t feel about other, more distant species—our dogs, cats, and horses—in the same distrustful way. And we fear tigers, bears, snakes, and spiders only because we have found them, or some of their related species, to be innately dangerous. But bears and snakes are not, for us human beings, “the other.” That status is reserved for people who are like us but definitely not us.

To see the other in people is a kind of blindness. It is to overlook the obvious case that we are all individuals with differences, some good traits and intentions, some bad, but mostly bland and indifferent. If you take people one at a time, as individuals, with a certain amount of basic respect for our commonalities and tolerance for our differences, then you don’t fall into the trap of treating whole groups of people as “the other.”

But these days it’s politically advantageous to divide people into groups, to define them by their difference rather than their commonality. And this tendency applies not just to physical, mental, and emotional differences but also—and sometimes more importantly—to differences in class, status, and sometimes even profession.

For the many consumers, the manufacturers and retailers of basic necessities have become “the other.” For many who identify as blue collar or working class, the business owners and financial services who support them—collectively, capitalists—are “the other.” For many people with a chronic medical condition, doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical and insurance companies become “the other.” In every case, the other is composed of people whose interests and intentions are markedly different from yours, therefore unknowable, therefore dangerous.

I just viewed the film based on John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, about a British diplomat uncovering the scandal of a European pharmaceutical company testing a flawed tuberculosis drug in Africa and hiding the negative results. The presumption is that the drug makers, the clinical trial operators, and the government diplomats coordinating between them are all so driven by profit and so desensitized to human suffering that bringing a failed drug with deadly side effects to market would seem like a good strategy. That is, the drug companies and their technical supporters are the unknowable and dangerous “other.”

For a number of years I worked in the pharmaceutical business as a documentation specialist. I can tell you that these companies at every level, from operators in the labs and production suites to executives in the home office, care very much about the health of their potential patients and the safety and efficacy of their products. This is because these people are fully human and have respect for themselves, their endeavors, and their fellow human beings. Bringing out a bad drug that kills people, however profitable it might be in the short term, is a bad business decision in the long term. Consequences catch up with you. No one wants to be ashamed of the company they work for because it carelessly killed people. The scientists and technicians I worked alongside were not “the other” but instead were respectable human beings who cared about human life, as well as the laws and accepted practices of the society in which they operate.

To suppose that pharmaceutical employees are soulless demons driven solely by the profit motive—or that bankers are heartless demons seeking to foreclose on their borrowers, or that food processors and grocers are mindless demons selling poisons disguised as nourishment—is to miss the fact that these are all people endowed with much the same sensibilities and concerns as yourself. If you believe that humans in society are basically corrupt and conscienceless, then you might also believe that respected local museums, regardless of their dedication to art and history, quietly sell off their most valuable artifacts to private collectors for profit and replace them with fakes fabricated by their curators. Or that doctors, despite their Hippocratic oath, routinely treat patients with unnecessary tests, procedures, and medicines simply to inflate their billings. Or that police officers, regardless of their oath to protect and serve, are sociopathic bullies who use their power to mistreat innocent civilians.

To see only the differences in people and fail to grant them provisional respect and tolerance as human beings is to succumb to the fear and loathing of “the other.” To see people as faceless masses with unknown motives and intentions is to succumb to the myth of “the other.” Casual discrimination, blindly lumping people together as types, remaining deaf to individual traits and capabilities, is easy. It’s lazy. It’s the failure to act as a thinking being.

And it’s tearing us apart.

1. Counting a generation as approximately twenty years. Of course, in hunter-gatherer societies, where life was closer to the bone, child bearing and so the start of the next generational cycle might begin soon after puberty. That would put a “generation” at more like twelve to fifteen years. But we’re dealing in approximations here.

2. Here I’m talking about inherited characteristics like peculiarities in the shape of eyelid, nose, or lips, certain distinctive body types, and certain predispositions to or protections against disease. The most obvious genetic difference, that of skin color, is the most widely variable and pliable characteristic. It has more to do with where a population most recently resided—in the sunlight-rich tropical regions or in the relatively sunlight-poor higher latitudes—than any immutable genetic predisposition. Take a Congolese family to Finland and let them live there for a hundred generations without interbreeding among the locals, and their skins will naturally lighten. Transplant a Finnish family to the Congo for a hundred generations, and their skins will darken. Skin coloration—an increase in melanin distribution—is a protective adaptation against ultraviolet radiation and not a permanent feature of the visible characteristics we tend to associate with “race.”

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