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Us versus Them: Othering ‘the Other’ [Part I]

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“ तू हम लोगों के टीम में है या नहीं ?”

“Are you on our team or not?”

Truth be told, competitive games have never been my forte. I’ve never been Team Competition. I still ain’t! It’s beyond me why one group has to outdo another group - or groups, plural – to prove superiority, whether physical, intellectual, moral or otherwise when instead, they could come together and collectively pool in all of their strengths and resources to overcome a challenge – whether fictional or actual.

Now tell me something… Doesn’t it strike you odd that outside of full days religiously designated for team-building activities, Collaboration – with a capital ‘C’ – rarely, if ever, makes any appearance whatsoever within boardrooms and classrooms? Also, how is anyone magically expecting team-building game days to yield any fruit when all year through, we’re still only promoting individuals and not teams, in the name of performance-based incentives, whether you’re 4 or 40?

I’m ambivalent when it comes to all things team-building. My contention is that we don’t invest enough time, energy, and resources in nurturing collaboration as we do with competition. Don’t you agree?

white water lily in an artificial pond
“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions”

Because …tell me this: how equipped do you think we are as a collective to approach ‘mistakes made’ and ‘losses faced’? Isn’t our default to look at it through the lens of whodunnit, fault-finding, and blame-game? Boardrooms and classrooms aside, do we – within families and neighbourhoods – approach any wrongdoings with the intention of understanding the circumstances that caused a person or a group to act in a manner that was counter to solidarity?

We don’t!

Instead, we usually resort to finger-pointing, witch-hunting and whataboutery – all of which does nothing more than first, create and then pit two parties against each other …almost like a competition, no? Where the goal is to prove The Other as the ‘inferior antagonist’ while minimising or even erasing our own wrongdoings!

Brings to mind this Stephen Covey quote: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions”, doesn’t it?

And even more fundamentally though – mistakes and losses aside - what is our individual and collective appetite towards anything that is different from us or from anything we’ve been used to?

Who is Us? Who is Them?

Now against this background, to further claim that I’ve been ‘disturbed’ by doomscrolling of news cycles and their vile, biased narratives would be a gross understatement - but you get the drift.

So, rather than be led by the tide of hate towards a bottomless abyss of exasperation, I have been taking comfort by allowing myself to be led by curiosity.

Side note: Curiosity is not only a constructive but also quite am antidote for false dichotomies and unconscious biases. 10/10 would recommend!

And staying curious has meant taking more than a couple of steps back; like zooming out of a figurative frame to better understand the elements.

So, I began with wanting to deconstruct the ageless ‘Us versus Them’ paradigm; you know that whole ‘we are the good people (us) and they are the bad people (them)’ narrative that has remained with us not just across works of fiction but has permeated borders, hemispheres and also generations.

Read: Travel and the Single Story We Tell Ourselves About Places

Confluence of Indus and Zanskar rivers in Ladakh Himalayas
What if, Zanskar and Indus adopted an 'Us v/s Them' approach? Would we ever have this view?

My starting point?

In-groups and Out-groups

Very simply put, in-groups are groups we’re a part of and out-groups are groups we’re not a part of.

Us and Them.

However, to be more specific, in-groups are groups we identify with or relate to either genetically, socio-culturally, or philosophically and out-groups are groups we don’t identify with or relate to either genetically, socio-culturally, or philosophically.

What makes us, us and them, them

My in-groups, then, comprise of associations I have by virtue of birth or ascription and achievement. So, this would mean all of the usual qualifiers like gender, religion, ethnicity /caste and race, nationality, social status, education, profession, sexual identity, marital status, and other memberships – inherited and earned, including political or even sport-related affiliations.

I imagine you’re populating for yourself all the in-groups you’re a part of. But there’s more…

Social Identity: I, you, us, they

Around the 1970s, Henri Tajfel conducted a study where when participants were randomly assigned groups, it was observed that they favoured the group they were allotted even though there had been no basis, no benefit nor shared history between and among members.

This came to be termed as in-group favouritism.

The opposite of which is out-group derogation; i.e., to view other groups, in comparison to my own either as a threat or perhaps even as being inferior to my in-group.

Us versus Them

This further led Tajfel to coin the concept of social identity, i.e. the manner in which I, as an individual, construct my own sense of Self based on the different groups I belong and claim membership to.

Now social identity is comprised of three ingredients:

First, social categorization i.e. the way I classify and categorise people (including myself). Some of my categories could include self-employed, English-speaking, Mumbaikar, mental health advocate… you get the drift, right?

Next is social identification which refers to adopting or assigning the identity of the group I have categorised myself or someone else as belonging to. This, in turn, influences self-esteem and social cohesion. I would add that social identification brings with it the vast array of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’.

Like… because I identify as a Mumbaikar, I should unquestioningly love everything about this city and oh, never refer to it as Bombay!

And how because I identify as a mental health advocate, I should know everything there is to know about mental health and must always only undertake activities that support my mental wellbeing.

You see where this is going, right?

Read: Travel In The Time Of Prejudice

traffic and city lights in the night
Old timers concede that 'Mumbai' is the city and 'Bombay' is the emotion

Finally, the third ingredient of social identity is social comparison which is basically comparing my group (the in-group) to other out-groups to prove that my group is better and in turn to continually one-up my own self-esteem.

This might offer some explanation on why we might get into the never-ending “Bombay is better than Delhi” debates!

All of this makes the interplay between group membership, identity, belongingness, and self-esteem rather evident when viewed through the lens of social identity. So, now let me ask you: What in-groups have you identified for yourself? Even more importantly, what are your out-groups?

The Other

Let’s take this even further, shall we?

So, if in-groups are where I find my sense of identity, belongingness and perhaps even acceptance, then out-groups become the spaces that I either dissociate from (by personal choice) or may never get accepted into (by the group’s choice).

The dictionary meaning of out-group is: “people outside one's own group, …considered to be inferior or alien; a group perceived as other than one's own”.

Which means that - my out-groups reveal to me who The Other in my narratives are.

Basically, anyone who does not belong to the in-groups I belong to or belongs to groups I don’t want to be in is The Other.

That is, they are not us.

The social identity theory also suggests that “the basis of social prejudice is the enhancement of self-esteem by discrimination against out-groups”. Which could mean that – and this is where Hell gets invited to the table – making members of my out-groups the focal point of my animosity and villainising them while relying on prejudices is what is known as Othering.

two peacocks on a tree
my out-groups reveal to me who The Other in my narratives are

Using the same vocabulary of ‘categorization’ and ‘identification’ as seen in the social identity theory, according to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights,

“...the process of Othering can be divided into two steps: Categorizing a group of people according to perceived differences, such as ethnicity, skin colour, religion, gender or sexual orientation; and Identifying that group as inferior and using an “us vs. them” mentality to alienate the group. Othering involves zeroing in on a difference and using that difference to dismantle a sense of similarity or connectedness between people. Othering sets the stage for discrimination or persecution by reducing empathy and preventing genuine dialogue.”
Paul Noth Duck God and Rabbit God

In other words, Othering is what we do to those we consider as Them

Othering is dehumanising

Othering is the opposite of Belonging

We could concede that our present-day tribalism, our viewing of The Other as a perceived threat is a primordial urge. That early humans, our ancestors in their pursuit for survival were wary of any and all intrusions. But cut the chase to the 21st century because this is where we are now if the calendars are to be believed – much of this Othering, this Us versus Them reeks of jingoism and majoritarianism.

Jingoism seems closely related to the concept of Ethnocentricism, a viewpoint according to which not only is ‘my’ group at the centre of the everything but it is also the vantage point from which other groups are judged. One such derivative of ethnocentricism is Eurocentrism which came to prominence geopolitically speaking, during the early 20th century but for an even more close-to-home after-effect, just run a search for “Eurocentric beauty standards” on your browser, would you?

Majoritarianism, on the other hand, seems to be in cahoots with Xenophobia – the fear, hatred towards anything that is foreign, strange. And when viewed through the lens of the present-day migrant crisis or transphobia or pogroms aimed at religious minorities paints a rather bloodstained canvas of what othering looks like.

To Be Continued...

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