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Ethics Explainer: The Other

by The Ethics Centre
12 April 2017

The Other is a term used to capture the ways we think of people as different from us. It’s also used to describe the people who we keep distant because we decide they’re not like us.

The process of Othering occurs when we turn fellow humans into abstract entities we can separate ourselves from or treat as less than human.

We often think of our social relationships in terms of groups – we have an ‘in group’ and an ‘out group’. These groups are distinguished by who we identify ourselves with and who we identify ourselves against. Othering happens when we treat the members of the out group – the people we don’t identify with – as though they were less important than the members of our in group.

This may not be conscious. Philosopher Simone de Beauvoir thought, “Otherness is a basic category of human thought”. As soon as we think about what something is, we think about the opposite – the Other.

Once we identify the Other it becomes easier to justify treating them in ways we wouldn’t treat a fellow person. We can abuse, exploit or persecute them without feeling guilty.

Othering was a factor enabling the Holocaust and slave trading. In each case, the victims’ humanity became invisible because people focussed on what made them different.

Given this, it would seem like the solution to Othering would be to focus on what we have in common rather than what sets us apart. This isn’t a perfect solution though. By focussing only on what is similar between us and other people, we lose an important tool in discovering our personal identity. Oftentimes it’s our differences that make us unique.

When we look at people as being 'like us', it can help us to relate but it can also be a little bit narcissistic. Instead of looking on the Other as someone unique, complicated and different, we treat them like a mirror. We try to find ourselves in different people instead of trying to see what defines them as them.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas thought the process of engaging with the Other and acknowledging the differences between us and them was the basis of ethics. All our theories, concepts and ideas about what to do and how to live start by acknowledging that we must engage with other people who are different from us.

Encountering the Other is difficult. The Other challenges our way of doing things, demands our attention and holds us responsible for our actions. Their presence forces us to rethink our understanding of the way the world works. It’s much easier to overlook that difference by looking for similarities or make those differences seem evil than it is to genuinely engage with them. Yet this is exactly what Levinas wanted us to do.

In fact, Levinas wanted us to look the Other in the face and see someone completely different from us. This way we start to recognise our ethical responsibility toward them, which is a really simple one: don't hurt them.

This philosophy of the Other is powerful because it encourages us to rethink our attitude toward difference. It acknowledges there are real and sometimes insurmountable distinctions between us but tells us that's OK.

Instead of getting caught up searching for what we have in common or stigmatising the things that set us apart, we should be open to learning from every individual we come across – no matter how much or how little of ourselves we see in them.

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