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Othering, Belonging, and Impermanence

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | April 26, 2015

I’m writing to you from the Othering & Belonging conference in Oakland, California, sponsored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

I wanted to attend because of the title: it’s rare that a conference will try to dialectically encompass both a problem and a solution in its own name. The name suggests both dystopian and utopian social visions. And the two opposites aren’t joined by an “or,” but by an ampersand.

The phrasing invites a question: Can we have one without the other?

Decades of scientific research — and thousands of years of recorded history — show how critical groups are to human self-definition and daily life. Why should that be the case? We use our groups to organize and conserve resources, like food, shelter, public space, and even air and water. Not just financial and natural resources, but emotional ones as well: generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, and more.

It starts with one of humanity’s most basic dyadic units: the partnership of two people, often for the purpose of creating more people. Within a couple, the contemporary ideal (if not always the reality) is that their bond will contain the maximum amount of altruism, trust, and cooperation. That emotional and resource sharing extends to their children, and to their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and so on. From the family, we expand the circle of concern to clan, tribe, race, nation. This, anyway, is the narrative embraced by millions of people.

Othering and Belonging 2015 speakers

Speakers at the 2015 Othering and Belonging conference in Oakland, California, sponsored by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

We as a species, historically, tend to share fewer and fewer resources with people as they become progressively different from us. We tend to forgive less and less as differences increase. We express less compassion to those outside the group. When we see someone in our group die, a piece of us might suffer with the family of the deceased. When we see someone outside the group die, we are far more likely to shrug.

In short, we “other” them. At the extremes, we don’t define the Other as human at all. We call them animals, and worse. Othering is what makes genocide and slavery possible, and those two horrors are a part of the human — and most pertinently for my own in-group, American — heritage.

The conference hasn’t lacked reminders of that heritage, and how it shapes our current reality. Today, we heard about the ways people are excluded, from the petty —like “manspreading,” the unfortunate practice of guys taking up a bit too much space on public transportation — to the structural, with widespread incarceration of our society’s most historically marginalized groups. Some participants complained to me of the negative emphasis by some speakers, saying that they were tired of hearing about what’s wrong with the world. What they wanted was solutions — ways to build this sense of belonging. They wanted to fulfill the promise of that other side of the title.

The key, many here argue, is to simply expand that sense of who belongs in the group. No one, said Haas Institute director john powell in his opening address, should ever be othered, even criminals, even the Koch brothers.

But the most interesting thing (to me) about the Othering & Belonging conference is that its collective analysis hasn’t stopped with intergroup conflict. As philosopher Joanna Macy told the audience in the opening panel, we sometimes other ourselves. That is, we remove ourselves from a humanity that seems too messed up to save.

“We get too cool to care, too scared to care,” she said. “We take refuge in our own powerlessness.” The movement toward belonging, she implied, begins with trying to belong to ourselves.

Though Macy didn’t explicitly discuss it, it occurred to me later that there are more ways to other yourself. If you are an Asian-American kid, for example, and you’re told that Asians are all high-achievers, then if you’re not a high-achiever you may not feel very Asian American. Your parents might, with the best of intentions, bolster this self-othering with disappointment.

“Most of us learn how to hate ourselves from within the family,” said bell hooks at the conference. In this way, you may come to other yourself from the group, or even from the family, to which you’re supposed to belong. This can lead you to being too cool and too scared to care about your own sorry self, never mind your community or your world.

As El Puente founder Luis Garden Acosta later told the audience about his work with youth in Brooklyn, “The first thing we try to do is connect young people with who they are.”

IMG_3452Today’s most concrete effort to realize the utopian promise of belonging has involved bathrooms. In an effort to tear down the most fundamental of human divisions, someone pasted “All gender/No gender” signs over the bathroom doors in the Marriott where the conference is being held. Somewhat to my surprise, participants have so far readily embraced the revolution. In the former men’s room (I haven’t been able to bring myself to enter the former women’s room), people who can pee standing up use the urinals while everyone else goes into a stall.

That may sound great to you, but I’m betting that people raised in traditions with well-defined gender roles may feel compelled to hunt for another bathroom. Are they being excluded? That’s how a friend of mine felt. This friend — raised by Latinas, not always treated kindly by men — didn’t belong. I was the only one who noticed.

I don’t have a pat answer to my question. But it reveals the wisdom, perhaps unconscious, of using a both/and to join “Othering” with “Belonging,” instead of an either/or. “Othering” is not a fixed point. “Belonging” cannot be an end state. Humans, I think, are much too complex and mutable for such easy formulations. As we expand the frontiers of “we,” some people might find themselves on the outside, perhaps without even having noticed when it happened. Those on the inside might not see who has gone missing.

As the conference reveals, othering and belonging are, together, a process, like water, like light, like dance. As I type these words, I’m watching, with the rest of the participants, a performance by the AXIS Dance company called “The Gift (of Impermanence).” That title captures the essence of the dance of othering & belonging: nothing is permanent, and it is only our ability to flow and change that saves us from disappearing altogether.

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