What I Learned From the Bugs: Alienation and Othering

“Great truths are sometimes so enveloping and exist in such plain view as to be invisible.” ~Edward O. Wilson

I went to study Entomology, and four years later found that I had discovered far more about my own species than I had about insects and other arthropods. What I learned about humans was enlightening, and often very disquieting.

Frequently, if you can’t see something, it’s because it seems normal and appropriate. Alienating and Othering so permeates the many facets of culture as to be invisible.

Take for example writings about people, either individuals or groups. These can be works of fiction, clinical accounts, self-help or parenting or therapy books, historical or sociological analyses, in fact, any sort of book whatsoever that refers to people with differences. (I was going to say “differences from the norm” but we also find this in books about women, and surely half the population has to be considered a “norm” from a sociological if not a statistical perspective.)

Frequently such accounts use the omniscient writing perspective, which makes it very easy to do a heavy amount of Othering. Even when the author is involved with the people described in the writing (be they fictional or real), the author is still not connected to them on an equal basis. It’s a privileged point of view, where the author’s reality is the only correct or possible one. The author gets to define who and what the people are, the limits of their being, and how human they are. This is allowed in fiction. But when it happens in what are ostensibly works of non-fiction, the writer is assuming that his or her personal reality defines the greater world.

Sometimes the writing is clinical and sympathetic in the pitying sense, but is not empathetic from being a part of those described. This leads to disassociation, where those who are different are part of the not-normal-Them, rather than the normal-Us. This is in contrast to the us-like-this and us-like-that where all are on the same level of acceptance. Much of this disassociation stems from pathologising; in some manner or another, everything the Other does is twisted and turned into an example of why they are Other, rather simply something they do as a human being. There’s a self-serving, circular logic to the whole definition: these people are Other because they are deficient physically and/or mentally, and because they are deficient, they must be the Other.

Sometimes the writing is condescending, where it interprets what the people have to say (once again, only the author’s reality counts) rather than listening to what the people have to say. It acts as a filter that must color everything through the author’s own sensitivities, rather than letting others speak for themselves.

Differences are exoticised, and are made lurid, or seen as extreme due to focusing upon them to the exclusion of other normal things, rather than seen as being everyday events and feelings. Any kind of life or condition in life could be described in a way and be viewable as grotesque and horrible. For example, read a book on the life cycles of eusocial insects (bees, wasps, ants or termites), and witness how utterly alienating, horrifying and sensationalistic the writing turns, even when glossed in scientific terminology. Nevermind that insects share genes with humans, and are simply going about addressing the problems of their daily lives: getting food, farming, performing fix-it jobs around the home, taking care of the kids, sharing news of the world outside the apartment, and keeping neighbors from stealing things. To nearly all authors, they are far too alien to be understood in any but the most detached way. We might understand what they do, and generally why they do things, but they are far too different from us to possibly be able to relate to in a meaningful manner. The same is sadly true for people writing about other people. The author’s lack of understanding, and the mental discomfort from such leads to disassociative writing.

On the human end, even when dressed in pretty 21st-century euphemisms rather than 19th-century slurs, being in the freak show is still … being in the freak show.

Part of what makes all this lurid is not just the disconnected, condescending attitude that makes one feel slimy for having merely read the material, but the whole deeply underlying sense of insecurity and fear that permeates the writing, and is part of the cause for all this disassociation. Many readers feel icky or uncomfortable, anywhere from having an uncomfortable taste in the brain to being downright nauseated after reading this stuff, and then transfer their discomfort to the subjects of the writing (“The weirdos! It’s the weirdos that made them feel that way!”), rather than realizing that it is the disassociation created by the author, or their own internal discomforts derived from lack of understanding and thus the fear of the different and unknown.

Icky writing separates people and actually creates further barriers: these Others are so far from being human that we cannot really understand them, and don’t want to even try because being able to put one’s self into such a different frame of mind might very well cause us to “go native” and endanger our status as Real People. Anthropologists will point out that many self-identifying names for groups translate to something like The People, as in “We are People, and the others aren’t Us (possibly aren’t People as well)”.

Those of us who find ourselves on the “wrong side of the tracks”, in the realm of the Others, feel this revolting sense when reading such things because of the cognitive dissonance created. We find ourselves initially “with” the author, because that’s what reading is about: being temporarily in the mind of the author. Then we find ourselves “with” the subject(s) of their writing, but unlike the author, can identify with the subjects: we are them and they are us. It makes the brain hurty trying to be in the Us/Human and Not-Us/Not-Human realms simultaneously. That’s because we know that the Not-Us/Not-Human group really is, and that they really should be in the Us/Human group. Furthermore, there shouldn’t even be an un-human group, and such divisiveness is inhumane.

In contrast, good writing connects people and allows them to realize their commonalities, and better understand their differences.

But that kind of writing can be really hard to find. Even in books with otherwise good points to be made, this paradigm is so pervasive (maybe it’s a cultural PSD: Pervasive Sociodevelopmental Disorder) that the authors, publishers and readership can’t see it.

Read a book description on the jacket or in a review, and see if the reviewer doesn’t assume that the readership us part of the Us rather than the Other. This is a symptom of being objectified, as in “They don’t …” What, they don’t read? They don’t have feelings? They wouldn’t feel insulted at all these assumptions? And most importantly, They aren’t really Us? The subject been marginalized.

It’s all the more disconcerting when the people who have been so Othered cannot find any other ways of relating to or describing their own experiences except within the confines of this tainted discourse, and pathologise their own lives in their writings. Oft times they can’t even see this effect to recognize how much it colors their own efforts, because they are so steeped in it. Thus we can end up as what Jim Sinclair refers to as the “self-narrating zoo exhibit”: a de-personalised object that is obliged to talk about themselves without personal boundaries and without being an equal in the conversation. Perhaps some of this comes from not having found any other way of authenticating one’s personal experience, and that describing it must be done through this filter to “prove” to others that it is indeed, real. This is a very sorry state of affairs where one is not of the Us, and furthermore, feels that they have to prove that they are even of the Other just in order to be someone at all. The cruel twist is that following this very rationale is what prevents one from claiming their own identity and having to settle for a less-than-full personhood.

The dissociation makes it hard to recognize when similarities happen. When I was learning calculus and kept hearing how hard the concepts were, but yet found the concepts to be very simple, I kept thinking that I must either be missing something or was not understanding something, because I wasn’t reacting to the subject like others were. In the same light, when reading about the “weird” or “bizarre” things that autistics do “for no reason” (read: cannot be understood), at first I couldn’t recognize myself in that same light. It wasn’t that I didn’t do some of those same things (or used to do as a child), but that I couldn’t see myself as being like the people who weren’t understanding why someone would do those things. Once again, I felt like I was not understanding something, and therefore wasn’t “with” the subject due to that sense of remove.

That level of remove made those aspects stranger than they really were, because they were not understandable at the Insider’s perspective of the Outsider. The Other (by definition) does different things and for different reasons than we do. Therefore, if the Other does something, and we also do something, it must be for different reasons. Once we remove that artificial boundary of Otherness, we can then see that in fact, we all do these things, for much the same reasons, even if we don’t all do these things in exactly the same ways, or as much of the time as one another. (Everybody stims, but some of us do it more often, and flicking one’s fingers is simply a less-common way of stimming than is fiddling around with one’s jewelry.)

This “Pervasive Sociodevelopmental Disorder” (and I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek here; we don’t need a fancy DSM-like name for something that is so unfortunately so old and basic to the human condition) is an invisible disability within society.

It’s invisible because not only can people not see it when it’s happening, but also because it’s such a novel, alien concept that frequently it’s hard to protest against because people don’t understand what you’re upset about, so first you have to be able to point it out and define it and convince them that it’s even there before you can protest it and seek to change it.

It’s disabling because it prevents people from working together effectively. Any protests against the state of affairs are easily dismissed because (once again), the Others are so because of their deficiencies, and because they have deficiencies, they must be Othered. You can’t take people seriously because they’re crazy, which is why they are in treatment in some manner or another. Likewise, you can’t take adults seriously if they disagree because after all, they are children and their parents must know what’s best for them. If you do make a sensible point, then you can’t really be one of the Others because they couldn’t make sensible points. If you’re not one of them, you can’t really speak for/about them, now can you?

And yet –

I do.

6 Comments

  1. DamionKutaeff said,

    22 March 2008 at 20:21

    Hello everybody, my name is Damion, and I’m glad to join your conmunity,
    and wish to assit as far as possible.

  2. Sharon G. said,

    1 June 2007 at 7:18

    Thank you for this post. I truly identify with it.
    For we it’s obvious that one can not be emphatic to the other if it sees the other from a pathological point of view. pathological reference make one side superior to the other. and when you look on someone from above you can’t be really empathic. from my experience when pathology and empathy are going a long, the empathy part is in essence a fake. and i think this is a common trait in non-autistics that is also a well-known one: the ability to pretend being empathic when one is not really.

  3. Anna said,

    14 May 2007 at 21:28

    I see what Astrid is talking about as the self-labelling problem. The ideal state of society is, in my opinion, the destruction of all labelling/Othering. But before you can get that far, one must first “find oneself” through that labelling, taking oneself out of the dominant structure and, having been Othered, figured out how that stucture has tainted one’s thoughts and what one actually believes. In that stage labelling is very important.

    Example: I believe all sexuality is on a scale, rather than easily defined in either/or. Yet many in the gay community, who arguably would benefit from the scale mode of thinking, reject the notion. This is because at that point, finding the label of ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, ‘polysexual’ rather than the presumed ‘straight’ is extremely important. That definition stays with one for awhile, before one can ever (if indeed, the person begins to do such) deconstruct sexuality into that scale model.

    Perhaps in the same way, while ideally all behavior would be on a scale, right now it is important to define austistic v NT behavior just so discussion/identification can begin?

    (disclaimer: or I could be totally wrong).

  4. zaecus said,

    14 May 2007 at 7:06

    Excellent, thank you. I’ve been trying to find ways of saying some things, and wasn’t finding the vocabulary for it. Given that you described it in the context of written works and not just social interaction (which was my primary focus), I believe this might be what Amanda Baggs refers to as “View from Above” in many books about, or even by, autistics; in our own books, we’ll often describe the things we do as something that can’t be explained to non-autistics.

    I do believe, though I do not wish to detract from your point, that it is possible to “Other” those who would consider themselves part of the “okay-Us”, but it only happens in certain situations. An example would be the person who is a member of a ‘privileged’ group and has encountered the writings of someone that group considers Other. The writings can be angry and reactive, and the result can be the same disassociation for the “okay-Us” person as is standard for the person whose words they are reading.

    Of course, the reaction is the same; the reader’s mind rebels against this, they react emotionally to the way things are being said, and then they begin attacking the specifics of what is said (“I’m not like that.” “You’re doing the same thing.” etc). It’s incredibly difficult to curb that reaction, and having it met with even more Othering responses can shut the person out.

    I’m still working on these thoughts.

  5. qw88nb88 said,

    13 May 2007 at 23:37

    “Othering” in the alienating sense is about those who are different being part of the not-okay-Them, rather than the okay-Us. This is different from the us-like-this and us-like-that,where all are on the same level of acceptance.

  6. 13 May 2007 at 21:22

    This is an interesting post, Andrea, though I find it hard to understand the concept. After all, some degree of othering is exactly what happens int he autistic community when we refer to ourselves as autistics and thereby distinguish ourselves from NTs. This is not the same as pathologizing or dehumanizing, but isn’t it still othering? Maybe what is really the problem is that the “others” are too often seen as not entirely human, or as not having the same human needs and rights as “normals”, not simply that autistics (for example) are seen as different from NTs. Of course, you are right about the fact that everyone stims, for example.


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