World Peace over lunch: Are you otherizing?

My long-time friend Elizabeth Lesser recently gave a powerful talk at TED.
In it she introduces a word that we need to understand – otherizing. It’s a great word that converts the noun other into the verb otherizing.

Otherizing is something you do.
It’s an action – however unconscious – of turning another person/group into an alien other. When you otherize, you’re  doing more than noticing conventional differences between you and another person. It’s more than, “Wow, I grew up in New York – and you grew up in California. That’s different.”

Otherizing is a way of distancing the self-that-I-am from the thing-that-they-are.
And it’s a way of turning another person into a thing. A  fearful, disgusting, ignorant, unenlightened, evil, dangerous, misguided, destructive thing, at that.

You can otherize:

  • A nation
  • A group of people
  • An individual
  • Someone you’ve never met
  • Someone you live with

When you’re otherizing you no longer see or hear the other as they are.
You’re not confronting their horrible reality – you’re facing the unredeemed and unacknowledged parts of your self. You’re looking into, what Carl Jung called, your shadow. Your shadow is that part of your psyche where you keep all the parts of yourself that you can’t (yet) integrate. It’s not easy to look into your shadow.

But, with  a neat linguistic shift, Elizabeth has given us a way to see the shadow.
A way to turn around in consciousness and catch yourself in the act of:

  • Projecting  your own unredeemed shadow qualities onto the other
    • It’s a basic psychological insight that the “unaccepted and unacceptable” aspects of your personality are unconsciously projected onto others in your life. If I’m identified with being a peaceful person who never gets angry – I’ll tend to project my un-acceptable and unaccepted angry impulses onto others . . . “Why are they so horribly angry all the time? What is wrong with them? Clearly they’ve got real issues.”
  • Reducing the other to a two-dimensional caricature
    • When you otherize someone, you lose touch with their humanity. You see them through a black and white pair of glasses. (When you look at yourself – you see white. When you look at them – you see black.) With this two-dimensional view, you can’t sense the struggle that they’re going through or the authentic values that fuel their passion. They just look like idiots, zealots, and crazies.

Otherizing has been going on for thousands of years.
It’s a time honored human activity that gives rise to all forms of violence. Now, that we have a word for this activity – we have a way of noticing, naming, and taking responsibility for it. And, as folks in the 12-step program say, when you can name it – you can claim it. You can see yourself in the act of turning another into “the other” – and you can choose to stop.

This turning around in consciousness and naming the process of otherizing – can be painful.
I don’t relish discovering that the horrible qualities I abhor in the other – have residence in my own soul. I prefer to think of them as narrow-minded – not myself. I get zing of self-righteous glee when I catch “the other” demonstrating their stupidity. But, to see the ways in which my own mind has narrowed into a nit-picking, judgmental, boiling cauldron – not so fun.

Yet, it’s part of the awakening process.

This turning around in consciousness and face the shadow – in me. As Carl Jung has famously said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” It’s ironic that in recognizing the humanity in the alien other, I can reclaim my own humanity.

When I’m free from otherizing, my capacity to listen and learn opens up.
I may still disagree with their position – but I won’t reflexively caricature them. And while we’ll certainly have differences, with the inner lines of defensiveness gone, those can become the basis for dialogue. And this world needs more dialogue, more listening, more discovering of shared humanity – behind differences of opinion.

Elizabeth gives us a word and a way to do just that . . .

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment