By Kyle Shiver, MA
We tend to develop and hold conscious attitudes about ourselves which make certain traits and behaviors unacceptable. When we see people in our 24-hour newsfeeds behaving in ghastly ways toward others, we feel a great divide between us and them. We think, “I couldn’t possibly behave in such a way”, even though we know that humans possess the capacity for both good and evil in the world; no exceptions. Without empathy toward an individual or group, we can easily be fooled into ‘othering’ the one we perceive as characteristically or behaviorally ‘different’ from us.
As throughout much of our global history, ‘othering’ has once again taken center stage in the comings and goings of our political and daily lives. We are bombarded with messages from pivotal world figures that we are exceptional and ‘they’ are evil. ‘They’ – the othered – become the screens on which we project our own fears and capacities for creating chaos in the world. ‘They’ become violent, wicked, dumb, and undesirable, while we remain sane, right, and undeniably good. At some point, we find ourselves having been blinded to our own capacity for creating chaos and have unconsciously objectified a person or group and formed a scapegoat – an individual or group whom we ostracize and persecute as we objectify them to falsely possess qualities within ourselves of which we are afraid.
All of this seems to happen in an instant, and we are suddenly thrust into a world we once thought was so ripe and ready for progress and cooperation – a world full of diverse communities working together toward individual and collective goals. One day, we suddenly feel like we have woken up in a not-so-unfamiliar time; a dark and dangerous time that reminds of us of our grammar school history lessons. We see hate crimes rising, white nationalist groups making their presence unabashedly more verbose and violent, and legislation protecting diverse individuals dismantled. People who are brown or black, gay, Muslim, trans, or in any way different from the collectively acceptable ideal begin to live with increasingly daily reminders that they are unacceptable to the established norms of society.
We need to parse out and examine the process of othering – to slow it down and press pause at the pivotal moment in which it begins the slippery slope of hateful division and scapegoating – because if we can identify such pivotal moments, we can prevent them from happening, and thus change ourselves and change our world. If we slow down the process collective and societal othering, we find a deeply personal internal psychological process of suppression and projection. As we develop as youngsters, we learn from our parents, communities, and nations what is acceptable and unacceptable to the degree that we unconsciously adopt such views as our own and marry them to our own experiencing of ourselves. Thus, when we encounter a naturally-occurring, but unsavory, aspect of ourselves, we attempt to push it away and split it off from our ideas of ‘who I am’. We unconsciously think, “If my community won’t love and accept this trait in me, then neither do I”, and banish this piece of ourselves into the shadows and out of our conscious attitudes about ourselves and our identities. We resist recognizing our own darkness and suppress it out of sight into the depths of our unconscious.
It is here that the pivotal moment, the moment before we begin unconsciously projecting our fears onto others, in which public enemy number one rears its ugly head: shame. Shame is the wild car we get into that leads us to creating enemies out of old friends and splits families and communities apart. Shame is the insidious experience that turns pieces of ourselves into shadows for us to project onto the screens of vulnerable populations. It is shame that says to our natural emotional experiences that they are unacceptable and should be banished forever. Shame doesn’t say “I’m sorry for what I did”, shame says rather, “I’m sorry for who I am”. While “I’m sorry for what I did” is useful (let’s call it guilt), shame – or “I’m sorry for who I am”, is not only psychologically useless, but also can become internally and externally violent. Shame can transform into something quite ugly.
Let’s look at one example of shame creating ugly outcomes in the world. A study on homophobia sampled two groups of self-reported straight men. They were divided into two groups. The first group consisted of straight men who reported that they were accepting and comfortable around gay men. The second group consisted of straight men who reported they were unaccepting and uncomfortable around gay men. The researchers attached electrodes to the bodies of each man to measure levels of sexual arousal, and placed them in rooms in which homoerotic images were displayed. The results may shock some: the men who reported themselves as being homophobic tended to become sexually aroused by homoerotic images, while the same images tended to have no arousing effect on the men who reported no homophobic feelings. This has obvious implications for how we can view the mechanism of othering.
It is societal norms which have taught these men that being gay is unacceptable to the degree that when they sexually matured and encountered their own natural desires, they banished this piece of themselves. This banishment created a ‘shadow’ self – a disowned piece of the self that has been pushed into the unconscious. This ‘shadow’, instead of enjoying a healthy way of meeting its needs by living an open and free life, transformed itself into disgust to then be projected onto socially vulnerable people who trigger their internalized shame. We see then that the shadow of our own vulnerability is the bully that ‘others’ others – which creates a ‘them’ onto which we can project our unconscious selves.
So, when we see someone or something that disgusts us, or makes us recoil in what seems to be an automatic process, it is in that moment you can press pause. Slow the process down to a grinding halt and ask yourself, “what in that person or thing disgusts me, and what in me is similar?” Live in the emotion that arises and refuse to get into the shame vehicle which will only drive you toward projected self-hatred and swiftly bring you to the point of ‘othering’. If you are disappointed, be disappointed. Sad? Be sad. Guilty? Feel guilty. We know that the only way to ‘get over’ emotions is to work through them. Go to a therapist and discuss your feelings. Their offices are safe places in which love and belonging should be a given. You need not fear rejection from your therapist (or you should switch therapists!). Whatever you do, stop short from saying “I’m sorry for who I am”. Acknowledge your shadow and starve your shame. If we each individually do so, we can begin to re-open to one another, and we can all be ‘us’ without the twisted need for a ‘them’.