Another Kind of Othering

Co-editor-in-chief Anita discusses how Western academic, political and social spheres can act as an alienating and divisive force.

image: Claudia Morua

The idea of the Other was first entered into academic dialogue towards the end of the 18th century by Friedrich Hegel (Kain, 2005). The term describes a way of looking at self-consciousness that distinguishes between the self, with features of one’s identity that are considered opposite to the self. This definition has been expanded more sociologically by a myriad of scholars, most famously Edward Said (1988), who discussed how othering could be used as a method of justifying colonial interests.  Said comments on the use of culture as a means of creating a binary distinction between western imperial thought, and the Other, or the Orient. More recently, Frantz Fanon has discussed the Other with regards to the impactful connotations of blackness and whiteness. Fanon comments on how the use of violence becomes legitimised and justified if a group is considered less human than another. I would like to expand on scholarly contributions to the concept of othering. However, I would like to suggest that within political, academic and social spheres, different causes, countries and ideas have been othered to preserve a form of Western academic or social superiority.

The discussion surrounding female genital mutilation has lead me to question whether the conversation itself has been othered, or marginalised. Female genital mutilation is a process by which some or all of the external female genitalia is removed, and happens most often to girls or young women. Amidst the significant academic research surrounding the topic, one can see a problematic attitude. Melissa Parker wrote ‘Rethinking Female Circumcision’ in 1995. It is useful to look at the significance of the title’s vocabulary. The term ‘circumcision’ abstains from considering cutting as mutilation or harmful to the female body and identity. This shows how Parker has power over the criteria for what is and isn’t appropriate language, and this devalues individual and collective experiences of suffering.  Furthermore, the term ‘rethinking’ implies that there is a better alternative outlook to the practice of FGM. This does injustice to FGM sufferers, diminishing their experiences by suggesting that suffering can be legitimised if it happens outside of western territory. Parker’s attitude signifies a quasi-scientific approach to anthropology as she abuses the ‘participant observer’ approach. She dramatically abstains from critique of FGM, whilst commenting on those who show open compassion and experience.

However, more insidiously it reflects a British imperial attitude. Said distinguishes between the characteristics of composure and distance that were assigned to western powers, as opposed to the characteristics of emotion and passion that were assigned to those outside of the western sphere. Parker critiques the breadth of emotional and moral responses to FGM, and looks at these emotions from a critical perspective.  In this way, she rejects responses that express compassion and solidarity, in favour of responses that appear non-invasive. Although long term goals and different attitudes are essential, Parker’s voice drowns out those of activists with more experience such as Leyla Hussein, Co-founder of Daughters of Eve, who has greater knowledge and direct experience. Global voices are othered in favour of a western, anthropological diatribe.

I also see othering happening in discussions surrounding Iran. Starting with events in American politics, such as Donald Trump’s border restriction aimed at specific ‘Muslim’ countries, one can consider the process of othering in a clear light. Trump attempting to warn the Iranian government that Obama was kinder than Trump will ever be, signifies already a desperate desire from the Trump administration to create a barrier. A  physical and political division between the ‘good’ west, and the Other or ‘bad’ rest of the world, making conflict in this way justifiable. Trump misinterprets Iranian history, placing it in a religious and cultural binary. Whilst Iran is one of the most secular countries in the middle east, the Trump administration groups it in with a myriad of countries with different histories. This others Iran, defining it without permission, making it and many other middle eastern countries deviant and thus aiming to justify penal consequences. Whilst Saudi Arabia gets a free pass, despite its extensive track-record of abusing human rights, other countries have their histories ignored and are alienated because they have less to offer the west.

To other something, is to erase a complex understanding of it, to generalize it and turn it into something deviant or unfamiliar. As I’ve explained with regards to FGM and Iran’s relationship to the US, othering can happen in both academic and political circles. The common denominator is a Western desire to separate, characterise and define. In this way, experiences, histories, individuals and societies are erased in favour of a limited binary that helps to justify conflict and abuse.

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