July 3rd, 2015
After the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th, George W. Bush addressed the people of the United States with a question. He asked, “why do they hate us?” In this case ‘they’ referred to the Middle East, and ‘us’ referred to the US. This simple question carved out a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’, where the latter is to be feared. This mentality has led to the War of Terror.
The idea of there being a ‘them’ separate from ‘us’ has been around for centuries. The root of the idea lies in philosophy, with a concept known as ‘the Other’. In fact, many philosophers theorize that the development of self-consciousness is reliant on the existence of the Other. Hegel wrote about it in a passage in his Phenomenology of Spirit, where he describes the encounter between two previously un-self aware human beings. Later, Sartre wrote about how the world is altered at the appearance of another person. In Africa there is also a similar concept, called Ubuntu. Without getting into too much detail, Ubuntu means “I am what I am because of who we all are” (I won’t say more because I know Jeremy is planning to write a post about it). Essentially, these ideas of Ubuntu or the Other explain the distinction between the self and other self-concious beings.
The concept of the Other has also been applied on a larger scale. Hegel and Sartre saw the Other as anyone outside of the self, but in modern day social sciences the Other is viewed as anyone outside of a chosen religious, ethnic, gender, or socio-economic group. And it is when this wider scope of the Other is employed that we get into trouble. Throughout history differences between people have caused wars, genocides, and endless suffering. In colonial-era Canada policies of assimilation were imposed in order to ‘whiten’ the population – i.e. wipe out the First Nations people because they were seen as lesser. The Rwandan genocide came about because the Belgians created a hierarchy where the Hutus were on the bottom and the Tutsis were on top – a hierarchy that was reversed and led to rebellion after independence. The whole notion of imperialism is hinged on the process of othering, whereby the perceived weaknesses of one group are emphasized as a way of stressing the alleged strength of those in positions of power. For some reason people have always acted like ‘different’ is synonymous with ‘less than’. We seem hardwired to separate people into groups, categorizing who is worth more and who is worth less based on attributes like skin colour or religion. We focus on our differences rather than our similarities, to the detriment of all.
So why am I thinking about all this? Let me tie all of this philosophizing to my current experiences in Uganda:
In my seven weeks here I’ve come leaps and bounds in terms of acclimatizing. When I first arrived I didn’t speak a word of Luganda. Crossing the street was an event in itself, and I couldn’t have found a place to get food if you paid me. Now however I greet my boss with a confident “wasuze otya”. I loop in between cars and bodas without blinking an eye, and Shelby and I make regular trips to the market to see our favorite vendors. I don’t even get hungry waiting for lunch anymore! (which is quite a feat given that it usually arrives between 1:30 and 2:30pm). With this new found comfort here, I sometimes have to remind myself that my current routine isn’t how life has always been.
But no matter how comfortable I get, I am still perceived as the Other. As far as the locals are concerned, I might as well have gotten off the plane yesterday. People on the street still stare, vendors still try to overcharge us, and bodas still line up in front of us every time we leave the house. Despite having seven weeks here under our belts, it’s assumed that we just arrived. And fair enough – we look out of place. It is clear just by looking at us that we are from somewhere else. No matter how comfortable I feel, my skin colour betrays me: for better or for worse, I am a foreigner.
Let’s skip to a little flashback: last weekend Jeremy, Shelby and I ventured out of the city for a hike in the Mpanga Forest Reserve. After navigating the taxi park and finding a suitable matatu – a kind of communal taxi or small bus – we found ourselves in the lush forest 35km outside the city. Our hike was about 6km in length and featured hundreds of different butterfly species, a centipede, and the largest fig tree I’ve seen in my life. After the hike we strolled down a wide dirt road in search of the drum-making village we’d been told was close by. Our leisurely walk took us through a small community on the edge of the forest, made up of tidy brick houses with bright blue doors and immaculately kept gardens. Between the houses were plots of corn, potatoes, and other vegetables I couldn’t identify. Cows grazed on the side of the road and chickens clucked in the yards.
Throughout the walk Shelby and I stopped every now and then to take pictures of the surroundings. It was one of the few times we’ve been out of the city, so our eyes were greedily taking in the new landscape. But as we walked through the community the comedy of it struck me. I was taking pictures of these people’s houses like they were the most interesting things I’d ever seen, but for the community members this was just the place they live. I imagined how funny it would seem if foreigners did the same thing in a Canadian suburb: walking through the quiet streets taking pictures of the immaculately groomed hedges and the matching garages. Here Shelby and I were intrigued by ‘the Other’, but for the community members this was their normal. Why would we want pictures of their normal houses and their ordinary gardens?
As we continued walking children of all ages stopped their tumbling to wave at us, their faces cracking into huge smiles exposing white pearly teeth. Yells of “hi mzungu!” followed us as we passed. In response we would smile and wave back, equally enthralled by their abundant energy and contagious laughter. As usual, the attention made us feel like we were in a zoo, with the whole community coming to gawk.
Yet again I was struck by how the way I was perceiving the situation probably went both ways. I realized that if we were in a zoo, then so were the people in the community. They probably had foreigners walking through and gawking at their lives all the time. There were only three of us rather than a whole village, but we were looking at them with equal amounts of interest and curiosity as they were looking at us. It was as if we were on either side of a glass, with both groups pressing their noses against it to get a better look. And it was unclear who was in the zoo and who wasn’t. We were both the Other.
In these innocent, brief interactions the concept of the Other was stripped of all its negative connotations. The differences between us and the children weren’t points of contention and conflict, but rather sources of curiosity. Throughout history differences have ripped apart nations, causing endless sorrow and suffering. But in this situation differences were something to be marveled at and appreciated. The Other wasn’t a way to understand oneself or seen as a threatening entity – rather the Other was a passing oddity, a point of fleeting interest.
In his writings, the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas flips the common perception of the Other on its head. Instead of the Other being lesser than, he sees it as superior and prior to the self. He also claims that it infinite – there will always be an Other. The truth is, people will always define themselves in terms of how they differ from the people around them. But this act of distinguishing doesn’t have to result in conflict. As Edward Said explains,
“To build a conceptual framework around a notion of us-versus-them is in effect to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural – our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange – whereas in fact the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed, and situational.”
On that walk I realized that who the Other is just depends on where you’re standing. I was equally as exotic to those children in the village as they were to me. Seeing them as lesser because they were different would have been just as absurd as them doing the same to us. In this context we are the foreigners – the Others who will always attract attention because we look different. But if these same Ugandans who stare at us came to Canada they would have the experience of being foreign. The Other isn’t a static, external entity. Rather the Other is fluid and ever changing. In some contexts we are the ‘us’, while in others we are the ‘them’. And the groupings change based on what attribute you identify with. So it’s impossible to objectively say who is the Other and who isn’t. Walking through that community last week I realized I was both at once: I was the ‘us’ and I was the ‘them’.