Sunday, July 10, 2011
He Ain't Other, He's My Brother
Otherness has been with us since the first of our species stepped outside the fire circle or was banished. What greater punishment than exile! Happiness was thinking, eating, living inside the box or tent. It conferred the security that conformity offers. Survival was iffy enough. Any dissent or deviation threatened the coherence of the tribe.
When squabbles broke out imagine learning alien rituals and grunts as one people wiped out another. Woe was the lot for the few survivors who became slaves or got dumped on for their otherness. In this respect little has changed.
Today we are witness to great population shifts; former colonies emigrating to their colonizers, ancient religions persecuted for their refusal to give it up, indigenous people wanting a piece of the rock. The dominant group always has a ready other to account for all their ills; the old story seems to still have resonance. Poor whites in the South vent their discontent on even poorer Blacks, incited by the landowners. Europeans always had Jews to blame, the English had their Irish, even some light-skin Blacks look down on darker skins.
As if skin color or apparel weren’t sufficient signifiers to proclaim the man, we’ve developed other means to sniff out who is not one of us. This one is too short or too tall; that one has a lisp or stutters. My deaf daughter has been shunned in her deaf community because she dared to learn how to lip-read and speak.
Tribalism lives in spite of our unique place among nations having been founded as a land of immigrants. Doors close in hard times especially when demagogues engender fear.
Identifying who they aren’t helps some people define who they are. Religions divide and then sub-divide us and do it so well I wonder if that is its only function. We spend a lifetime looking for identity as if it is inherited and immutable rather than a work-in-progress subject to free-will. What we call identity is largely an illusion; an easy and lazy label whose terms we may not have re-visited for a long time. How we live our days, within and without, eludes naming.
We speak of our first Black President ignoring the fact that he is half Caucasian and raised and educated as such. Unlike most African-Americans he has no roots in slavery. Yet many have relegated him to outsider status when we say he’s not one of us.
Bring a third person into a two-some and the dynamic is changed. Maybe exclusivity is hard-wired or maybe it isn’t. Even as tribalism hangs on as a vestige of ancient times we are also in the midst of universalism. The International Space Station brought together 16 nations. Europe is erasing its borders with a common currency. There is no other when we confront global warming.
Artists live in another precinct outside the circle. They need the space apart, as oxygen to breathe. They need the distance to see and hear what we may not, so that eventually the unseen is revealed to all of us.
In his book, Memoir of an Anti-Semite, Gregor von Rezzori traces the slow, nearly imperceptible and seemingly benign acceptance of anti-Semitic untruths. The inaction of one individual after another, in the face of monstrous lies, gets multiplied into the horrific acts of the Holocaust. The offenders are victims as well; they survive with damaged psyches and unlived lives, cut off from their fellow men.