The Concept of Othering

By Sam Lewis – Regular Contributor


Like most other people during the exam season, I found myself revisiting articles that I hadn’t thought about in a while. Some of these were on the not at all controversial topic of Brexit and in one of these articles I found a very confusing idea. Whilst talking about how urban areas were more likely to vote remain the article ponders: ‘in ethnically mixed areas people were more likely to vote Remain than people living in predominantly white areas, perhaps because they had a more cosmopolitan outlook.’ This statement shocked me because it did not acknowledge that in diverse areas that it was not simply white people voting. In the spiral, this lead me on to consider the concept of ‘othering’ or the idea of treating a group as distinctly different to ourselves. In particular, if a serious piece of academic journalism could buy into the idea the only role of diversity in the UK was the influence of the white electorate by the ‘others’ then how far does this permeate our society?

A key impact of othering is its attempts to create a homogenous mindset. On a smaller scale, this could be seen during the recent university strikes. Just before industrial action took place the Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffery claimed to students that he knew this is not what we wanted. This was said despite the vice-chancellor not polling students about what they thought about the strikes and some student societies such as (but not limited to) Marx Soc and UYLC supporting the strikes and appearing at picket lines. I am not claiming that all students supported the strikes but instead showing how homogenous groups are created and used in political discourse. Whilst on a far smaller scale than other examples,  it also demonstrates a key theme to consider; that people in power feel the ability to make generalised statements about those who are below them, in this case by stating that one group is not acting in the interests of another group who they have not consulted.

This ability for generalised statements is reflected in the discourse around the working-class and in particular, its ability to alienate people from large-scale political representation. As has been seen in the discourse around Brexit and Labour’s loss of the ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 election, an image has been created that associates the working-class with people who are white and socially conservative. Such people clearly exist but such a limited view has some seriously negative impacts. Given the importance of immigration in recent political discourse and this idea of the working-class, this definition has the implication that minorities who are somewhere between C2-E are not working-class and hence not British. In this way, two words can exclude a vast array of people from being represented, especially when the word ‘real’ is put ahead of it. Nowhere has the impact of this been seen more clearly than in the conclusions drawn from the 2019 general election. In particular, arguments have been made that Labour should drop a promoting a socially liberal agenda because it is not in the interests of the  ‘working-class’. When this argument is taken to its logical conclusion it is essentially people claiming that the opinions of white, older, socially-conservative people matter more then the interests of minorities, an interesting argument to be made by people who claim to be part of a progressive party!

The concept of ‘the other’ is not only damaging due to its ability to remove people from the political arena but also due to its ability to dehumanise people entirely. This is seen most apparently through the treatment of the homeless in society. In a survey conducted in 2019, it was shown that the amount of people without homes in the UK equals roughly the population of Reading. However, this entire group are barely treated as humans. The way the homeless are ‘othered’ is seen in the way they are treated as the worst aspects of society. For instance, there are several sitcoms and stand up comedians who make the joke of a character sleeping with someone who is homeless as a reflection of them hitting rock bottom (for instance see Eli Wong’s joke about sleeping with two homeless guys as a sign she needed to stop dating and settle down). In this way, the homeless are treated almost as a sickness, a group who ‘decent’ members of society should not interact with at any cost. What is revelatory is what this treatment reveals about society. The key separation is the lack of a permanent address and therefore the ability to do such things as own a bank account. In this sense, this group has been excluded from society due to their ability to contribute to capitalist society through property and wealth. Importantly the lack of serious attempts to tackle this. Due to not having a permeant address those who are homeless are unable to vote meaning if you are unable to operate in the capitalist system then you are not allowed to have a say in society. Furthermore, any serious attempts to tackle this are focused on the capitalist avoidance techniques of philanthropy and ‘pulling up by your bootstraps’. This is reflected in the big issue which was founded by the formerly homeless Baron Bird, a fantastic story but also a damning indictment of the fact that governments are fundamentally unwilling to aid those who have been ‘othered’ in society and it is left up to themselves or individual acts of charity to aid those most vulnerable in our society.

The example of homelessness is important because understanding who has been ‘othered’ in society also reveals who society favours. For instance, looking back at the example of the working class, it reflects a society which is more willing to represent white members of society. Furthermore, it is an important concept because it shows how inequality in society operates. A common problem is when people believe that inequality is only evident in overt acts of discrimination such as sexist remarks or the explicit use of racial slurs. However, the concept of othering reflects how it is just as evident in common political narratives too. The reality is that the use of othering reinforces the norms of society, whether that be in terms of economic or societal values and thereby pushes those who do not fit into those norms to the side-lines. Of course, this is not an easy cycle to break free of, I have used othering to convey my point in this article and we subconsciously use othering most days. However, if we are to be a more inclusive and therefore progressive society a key factor is calling it out when it is used. We need to challenge common assumptions about groupings in society and celebrate those who have been excluded from the mainstream. It is not difficult but hopefully if we start doing it we will begin to see a brighter future.

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