Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thoughts of the Other


There are schools of philosophy in which the "Other" is used to define the self. In this sense, one description of the use and intention of the word reads: "Other often denotes a person Other than one's self; hence, the Other is identified as 'different'; thus the spelling is often capitalized." That is, the self is not like the Other and that separation is used as justification for behavior towards the Other that could not be justified towards oneself.

Like all philosophical ideas, the Other has personal, political, economic, social, psychological and ethical manifestations. Every human who has ever lived is different from all the others, but when different becomes other (or Other), the world tends to become Orwellian. That is, those fellow human beings who are different from oneself sometimes tend to be perceived in some small or significant way as less equal—even in a country that proclaims that all men are created equal.

Dehumanizing, devaluing, demonizing human beings, no matter by what criterion, has consequences for both the Other and the self.

It is an old story.

One of the best-known and oft-told versions of the Other story resulted in the Holocaust. As such, the story of the Holocaust cannot be repeated too many times with the intention (in the hope?) of helping humans learn that defining oneself as being in some small or significant way more equal than another is as dangerous as it is ignorant, narrow and heartless. Still, the idea of the Other persists according to differences of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, profession, political affiliation ... add one of your own. The idea of the Other is what created the Holocaust, and those who maintain "it couldn't happen here" are, at best, not paying attention. The Other is alive and thriving in America.

Among the best-known, close-to-home, modern, ongoing and oft-told versions of the Other story is personified in Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that concludes that Arpaio oversaw "the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history." The New York Times called him "America's worst sheriff." In addition, he has been soundly and deservingly criticized by Amnesty International, the ACLU, the Arizona Ecumenical Council, the American Jewish Committee and the Arizona Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League. Yet he has been elected three times as sheriff of Maricopa County, the first time by a two-thirds majority.


That is, old stories are not told by one man alone. The Holocaust required more than Hitler. Those many Americans who don't share Arpaio and his constituency's world view and treatment of the Other may take some comfort that they live in counties that would not elect a man for whom the idea of the Other takes precedence over the law. In most but not all cases, they would probably be right, but it is small comfort rooted in the idea that it is only the Other county (Maricopa) that would elect, support and agree with "America's worst sheriff."

I live in Blaine County, Idaho, among the least likely counties in the state to elect an official capable of implementing the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history. But I know many people in Blaine County and elsewhere who would support Arpaio and his ideas that the Other is undesirable and needs cleaning out of "their" county.

Which brings up the next obvious, necessary question. Is a man who is an acknowledged disgrace to, among other things, his profession the Other? The inmates of Arpaio's "Tent City," which the sheriff himself termed a concentration camp, might understandably see him as the Other. After all, one summer day when temperatures were 118 degrees in Phoenix, they were measured (by Arpaio) at 145 degrees in Tent City, and inmates who complained were told to "shut up."

But the philosophical idea of defining the self in terms of not being the Other is, at best, a mistake, at worst an abomination. The idea of the Other is a lie, and to embrace it in response to someone who is using it against you when you know it is wrong is something like becoming a terrorist in order to end terrorism, curtailing freedoms in order to maintain freedoms, destroying the village in order to save it, etc., etc., etc. Arpaio is just another human like everyone else, including those who elected him, whose imperfections, limitations and self-identity involve perceiving himself as other than the Other. While such people, in my view, are poor candidates for positions of power, authority, leadership or example in the world, they all too often wind up there. Why this is so is, in my view, a question worth pondering.

When one person can view another as the Other and less equal than oneself, then it is a small step in the mind to view the rest of the world—the environment, the landscape and air and water and flora and fauna of the only planet we will ever know—as the Other.

Albert Schweitzer, a complete person and admirable human being, an example of how to live and by what values, once said, "If a man loses his reverence for any part of life, he will lose his reverence for all of life."

Res ipsa loquitur.

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