I have been thinking a great deal about how we Other people. German philosopher Hegel first coined the term, elaborating how the human preoccupation with the Self automatically creates a Not-Self, or an Other. Everyone who is not Me is Someone Else, and that person, that not-me, the un-self, is the Other. It is reductive: that means it reduces people to objects. When you de-humanise someone you take away the elements that make them people and assign them to yourself, and then it is a hop skip and a jump to inflict all manner of horror on them, because they aren’t really people. They are a feared, scorned, derided Other who doesn’t deserve or need empathy, pity or power.

As you can imagine, Othering is a particularly useful tool to have in one’s propaganda belt. By turning difference into something strange, to be feared, an oppressor can easily incite people to violence and hatred because they have eliminated the elements of what connects us as humans. In the Cold War era Americans Othered Russians by spreading propaganda about how Communists were evil and ate babies for breakfast. During the ’71 war East Pakistanis were Othered by describing them as dark, short fish-eaters. The British did it to us, Othering Indians to the extent that they considered us only slightly better than animals, and were thus easily able to commit horrific massacres like Jallianwala Bagh or put “No Indians or Dogs” signs outside their clubs. We have carried this forward, augmented by the cultural biases we already had in the Subcontinent. Distaste for Dalits has been translated into our discrimination against Christians, and many people will not share utensils with them for fear of contamination. Sunnis and Shias, everyone and Ahmedis, rich people and poor people, cis and trans, men and women. We are constantly either otherizing or being othered, and we keep doing it because it is easy. It gives us the terrifying ability to disregard the humanity of others and the responsibility we have to each other as humans. When we let drivers stand for hours in parking lots, we tell ourselves they don’t mind because “they” are used to it. When men shoot transgender women for no reason, it is because they don’t think of trans women as real people, only objects that they understand and probably fear. When men harass and molest women, it’s because they don’t see women as people like them, with emotions and desires and reactions, but just objects there for the taking.

It’s a particularly perplexing situation in a culture such as ours that overshares and takes an almost morbid curiosity in the lives of others. One can’t sit in a doctor’s clinic, on a bus or at a funeral without being peppered with questions: what are you doing here? Are you related? Are you married? Do you have children? A life-threatening disease? How much did your haircut cost? One would think such a curious lot of people would also be people possessed of similarly profound empathy, but that is far from true. We love information, but we refuse to actually do anything with it. We want to know every detail of your illness but will never actually do anything to make you feel better. We rubberneck at accidents like giraffes on fire, but precious few will actually stop their car and get out to help. We are a nation of gawping bystanders, happy to transform into a bloodthirsty mob for all the wrong reasons. We are classic Otherers, only preoccupied with ourselves and our desires. That is where our entitlement comes from, and that is where our disregard for other people comes from. If you aren’t “in”—if you aren’t from the same family, baradari, neighbourhood, sect, gender, orientation, class—then you are simply irrelevant. This is why we drive like rabid beasts, let doors slam in the face of the people walking into stores behind us and use aeroplane bathrooms like we were bison at our personal watering holes.

No wonder then that we can change our tune with ease. We take sides and keep changing them, because everything is seen through the lens of the Self. Principle and morals are fixed values; things are either right or wrong. If they can change with the tide and one’s own convenience, then they aren’t principles, only opinions. Othering people comes to us easily, because it absolves us of the responsibility of care, of having to ask oneself difficult questions, to stick one’s neck out to do right by someone. When you invalidate the Other’s humanity, why bother with ethics? Why fight for equal pay when you don’t really think women are competent? Why speak up about genocide when you can only humanize Rohingyas in distant Burma, but not Hazaras in the province next door? Who cares about a few trans women or a bunch of poor kids in Kasur? Their humanity—and the transgressions upon them—barely makes a dent on our consciousness because they aren’t Us.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com