Otherize is not a word I use every day. I suspect many folks have never heard the word. It seems fairly east to guess what it means, even if you have never seen it. The sad fact is people can “otherize” other people without knowing the word itself. To otherize someone or some group is both a perception and an action. It is important and, often, is a spiritual issue.
Most recently, I ran into the term in an Op Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof that was entitled, “How Well Do You Know Your Religion?” I have a great deal of respect for Kristof’s work. He is a double winner of the Pulitzer Prize as an American journalist. He often writes on human rights issues, poverty and the like. When he speaks, I pay attention. So I obviously was intrigued by the title of this piece.
The context for the remarks is comments from some American politicians that we ought to bar any Muslims from coming into our country. The implication that goes along with this is that we ought to be suspicious of any Muslims living in our country. Kristof suggests that some Americans have the perception that “Islam is rooted in misogyny and violence, incorrigible because it is rooted in a holy text that is fundamentally different from others.” In other words this perception contends that the Qur’an (Koran) teaches readers to hate women and be violent.
The implication again is that ours---our scriptures are different and better. By “our” scriptures we are talking about the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and, of course, the New Testament. Jews and Christians alike can share this perception. To have this view clearly puts the Muslim in his or her place. Their holy text, their religion and they are not as good as we are. The process of otherizing has begun.
I think Kristof now offers a telling point. He contends, “There’s a profound human tendency, rooted in evolutionary biology, to ‘otherize’ people who don’t belong to our race, our ethnic group, our religion. That’s particularly true when we’re scared.” I don’t know whether proof is possible when it comes to his contention, but I am convinced. And I have some experience that I think backs it up.
We can take it out of the scary international realm of politics and current fear of terrorism. I think we see a benign version of otherizing when we look at the world of sports. Many of us have participated in this in a way that is fun and usually quite harmless. Think of rivals in sports teams: the high school or college rivalries or the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. This is an inadequate example because we usually know the names and even the people of the opposite team.
Nevertheless, in these rivalries the other team tends to be otherized. Temporarily at least, they are “the enemy.” It is easy to “hate” them. During the game, we hope that we can “kill” them.” Shame and humiliation would be a good thing. It is fun to watch not only the other team “get it;” we are happy to have their fans experience it, too.
The good news in the sports world is the game is over and players usually shake hands and realize it is just a game. It is not real life-and-death. Otherizing the opponent normally is left to the sports context alone. But even when I type that, I realize this may be easier said that done. If I am a die-hard Red Sox fan, hating the Yankees is a commitment and a way of life. I may joke about it, but underneath the joke is a tinge of sincerity.
When I take the otherizing tendency into the world of religion, it functions the same way. My Bible is the truth and the “other” holy text is not even a holy text to me. It serves me no purpose to think my text has alternative interpretations or even contradictions. It is easy to see these problems in those other texts. And to associate the text with the religion with the adherent of that religion is to begin otherizing him or her---or all of them!
If I otherize people this way, I lower their status beneath mine. Otherizing people makes them less than human---they become “it.” This typically cancels any obligation I might have to care. There would be no role for compassion. This is a perspective and it leads to particular kinds of action. The course is set.
It is not just my problem; it is everybody’s problem who otherizes folks. Jews can do it; Muslims can do it; Hindus and Buddhists have done it. All I can do is be as aware as I can of what commitments I have made. My personal commitment is Christian which, I understand, commits me to follow Jesus. I hear his counsel to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and love your enemies. This does not sound like otherizing. I understand that all this can be dismissed as naïve, at best, or unrealistic and even stupid.
Like Jesus, I believe my ultimate commitment is to love. If I have that perspective, it necessarily will lead to particular actions. When I type that, I realize how easy it is to be a hypocrite. All I can do is keep trying---not to otherize and to love.