The dehumanization of the “Other” is at the core of most of humanity’s tragedies. It is responsible for all manner of violence, whether physical, spiritual, or intellectual.

The dehumanization of the “Other” is at the core of most of humanity’s tragedies. It is responsible for all manner of violence, whether physical, spiritual, or intellectual. Nationalism necessarily places one’s culture as superior to all others, making that which is culturally different inferior and less human, rendering it at worst inert material to be subjugated for one’s benefit and at best a mere source of entertainment. We live in a time plagued by these issues. We are encountering terrifying ideologies and politics that are racist to their core. We are dealing with the resurgence of fascism, neo-Nazism, white supremacism, institutionally endorsed racial, sexual and gender discrimination, walls, apartheids, anti-immigrant laws, and it goes on and on. 

These catastrophes all stem from “othering,” that is, from thinking that those who are different from us are inferior and threatening by default. Behind the othering lens, there is little room to acknowledge the humanity inherent in every single culture and individual. The Quran fittingly states, “We have . . . made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”[2]

Citing scripture carries the risk of being perceived as irrational and unaware of what is appropriate in intellectual discourse. However, if we disregard the source and focus on the idea itself, we will find it extremely pertinent to the discussion. The notion of knowing one another is crucial because it implies a relationship of equals. It assumes the existence of a common denominator between them: humanity. This understanding appears, regrettably, to be lacking in today’s world. 

In Timothy Mitchell’s excellent book, Colonizing Egypt, we learn that “We” have been attempting to know not each other, but the “Other,” the lesser object of our exploitative designs. This “We” can stand for any individual, discipline, institution or nation that systematically views cultures other than its own as inferior and often, even subhuman, a view which nationalism tends to produce and promote. In the United States, we presently have a president who unapologetically brags about his racist views and boasts about the supposed inferiority of cultures different from his own. This tragically deranged man has fought and continues to fight tooth and nail to have these chauvinistic views implemented as the laws of our land: travel bans for Muslims, a wall to keep “threatening intruders” away, racial slurs turned into political slogans, immigrants in cages, children dying in detention centers, away from their parents, etc. The appalling examples abound. 

In the Trump era, xenophobia, narcissism, and anger have become normalized and even glorified, seen as an effective means to make our country “great.”

In the Trump era, xenophobia, narcissism, and anger have become normalized and even glorified, seen as an effective means to make our country “great.” The situation is heartbreaking, and only by reflecting and fixing our hearts about how each of us sees “others” can we begin to veer from the destructive path we are on. 

Professor Edward Said 1935 2003

Professor Edward Said (1935-2003)

This type of bigotry has its counterpart in the intellectual world. As Edward Said articulately explains in Identity, Authority and Freedom: “If the authority granted our own culture carries with it the authority to perpetuate cultural hostility, then a true academic freedom is very much at risk, having as it were conceded that intellectual discourse must worship at the altar of national identity and thereby denigrate or diminish others.”[3] Said, who had several conflicting identities, including Palestinian, American, and academic, asserted that he found it impossible to identify with the “triumphalism of one identity because the loss and deprivation of the others are so much more urgent.” 

Similarly, citing Said, Nora Akawi explains that “‘to make the practice of intellectual discourse dependent on conformity to a predetermined political ideology’ or predetermined canon of learning, western or other . . . ‘is to nullify intellect altogether.’”[4] And this is what has happened in much of our learning about “other” cultures, learning which promotes the views that lead to today’s devastating politics. “We” have “triumphed” in defining “our” culture as superior and this gives “us” the right to look down at whatever “we” want, in whatever form “we” want and for whatever purpose “we” deem worthy. This triumph has come at a great loss. 

The price of excluding all the others is actual poverty of the spirit, allowing us to keep only “dust”, projections, and imaginings that stand in for reality.

The price of excluding all the others is actual poverty of the spirit, allowing us to keep only “dust”[5], projections, and imaginings that stand in for reality:

“‘Think of it no more!’ wrote Nerval to Théophile Gautier, of the Cairo they had dreamed of describing.  That Cairo lies beneath the ashes and dirt, . . . dust-laden and dumb.’ Nothing encountered in those Oriental streets quite matched up to the reality they had seen represented in Paris.  Not even the cafés looked genuine. ‘I really wanted to set the scene for you here’, Nerval explained, in an attempt to describe the typical Cairene street, ‘but . . . it is only in Paris that one finds cafés so Oriental.[6]’”

The reality for these “travelers” was the French representation of the “Orient.” Anything else, was unacceptable. The Orient itself, in this case, Cairo, appeared to them completely chaotic, incomprehensible, disappointing. The “Orient” they found existed outside of their “world of exhibition,” lacked “genuine” cafes, and was empty of most of what they expected to encounter. The “Orient” Europe had produced was a much better “Orient” than the one inhabited by other (lesser) types of human beings. 

They desperately wanted foreign countries to mirror the “Orient” they had brought with them. But, to their disillusionment, this foreign, non-European “Orient” would reflect everything but the image embedded in their imagination. This foreign “Orient” seemed to have nothing to do with their manageable, easily representable, homegrown “Orient.” Later, colonialists attempted to force and forge their “Orient” into being, in the European mold of “order” and “progress” that, in their view, should reign globally. 

The alleged preeminence of western culture and Euro-American supremacism are promoted and exported all over the globe, unconsciously accepted by many everywhere as the truth. 

Although most cultures have engaged in some form of othering throughout history, in western modernity and post-modernity, othering has been taken to an unprecedented level, with the most atrocious consequences: genocides, apartheids, all forms of colonialism, the destruction of native peoples and cultures, atomic bombs, nuclear weapons, etc. The alleged preeminence of western culture and Euro-American supremacism are promoted and exported all over the globe, unconsciously accepted by many everywhere as the truth. 

It takes, however, little awareness to realize that these supposedly superior cultures are built, to a lesser or greater degree, primarily on the edifice of an overarching underlying value: pure material progress at the expense of ethics and human values. In other words, the chief value of our time and culture is the worship of material wealth above all else. 

This “theology of progress” makes us believe that unbounded economic and material prosperity is the ultimate aspiration of human beings, and what will make one “happy.”

This “theology of progress” makes us believe that unbounded economic and material prosperity is the ultimate aspiration of human beings, and what will make one “happy.” In reality, it leaves people spiritually bankrupt, mentally and emotionally sick, willing to do pretty much anything, including poison their own people (the food industry/medical industry mafias), for profit. These are values that come directly from our western liberalism and monstrous form of capitalism and which, sadly, most of the world is striving to adopt. 

It is, therefore, worth approaching the issue of “Orientalism” as just another expression of “Othering,” a toxic and inhumane perspective on the differences that in actuality make our society a vibrant and powerful melting pot. For without the mosaic of races, cultures, languages and heritage, society will wither and die. Diversity is the mother of creativity and expansion, it is to be valued and encouraged. The mark of a great society is its ability to embrace others, cultivate their uniqueness, and mold their contributions into a sacred wholeness. The “others” are Us, the separation is but an illusion. 

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End-notes:

[1] Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 328.

[2] Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Quran, p. 1097.

[3] Said, Edward, “Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler,” Boundary 2, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn 1994), pp. 1-18. Duke University Press, p. 10.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/303599

[4] Amale Andraos, Nora Akawi and Caitlin Blanchfield, “The Arab City: Architecture and Representation” Columbia Books on Architecture and City, 2016, p. 28.

[5] Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (UC Press, 1984), p. 35.

[6] Cited in Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt (UC Press, 1984), p. 35.