In politics and popular culture, we’ve always had villains, devalued enemies, and others who purportedly stand for everything we are not. They enable us to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. This cast of characters has been called many things over the years—scapegoats, savages, evildoers, and worse. Social scientists use the term “otherness” to describe this process, its functions, and its impact. Othering is front and center in U.S. politics today.
The Trump Administration, through both words and actions, has advanced a worldview in which selected people are devalued based on their religion, race, sex, sexual orientation, and national origin. Critiques of this othering rightly focus on the harm that accrues from suggesting certain individuals are lesser human beings or even less than human. But there is another side to othering that is similarly dangerous. Othering operates not only to advance the idea of a lesser Other, but also to perpetuate the idea of the virtuous Self (or dominant group).
Trump offers an extreme, though not unique, version of both sides of this phenomenon. His words suggest that anyone is who not a White, Christian, straight man is Other. And he understands himself as without flaw.
The problem with this myopic view is not only that it inflicts harm on targeted groups, but it also negates any possibility that we might become something better. After all, if we are the best in the world, why would we need to change? The answer is perhaps most easily – and least threateningly – revealed by looking at the sports world. The best athletes achieve and sustain greatness by constantly engaging in self-critique, identifying weaknesses, and addressing shortcomings. So should we, as a society.
Thus far, the dominant response to the horror and tragedy of Charlottesville has failed to do so meaningfully. Many U.S. politicians and commentators have objected to Trump’s comments, responding “this is not who we are.” Although they were right to repudiate Trump’s remarks, resting on “this is not who we are” actually risks further entrenching otherness constructs; it rejects white supremacists as not us, so we can preserve the idea that we are heroes in this story.
To be clear, distancing oneself from white supremacists is not the moral equivalent of marching with KKK members and neo Nazis, despite certain statements about blame belonging to “many sides.” But failing to acknowledge the historical and structural elements of U.S. society that led to white supremacists marching on Charlottesville perpetuates the idea that our broader society is without fault.
Racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hatred persist in the United States. This is not the result of merely a few deviant actors. Until there is broad recognition of this fact and critical engagement of the complex structural and historical issues that give life to bigotry in this country, condemnation of white supremacist rallies or Trump, while necessary, will fail bring about meaningful change.
First published at: Human Rights at Home blog.