On Studying the Other

Sometimes it is very useful to go back, find those old writings, and revisit them to see the trajectory of your thoughts, and how much they have matured. In this 15-year-old piece that I wrote for a class, I can see some basic ideas I still have about people (especially given my exorcism cinema work), but I seem more hopeful all those years ago than I am now about how sociocultural transformations can occur.

            After reading the first chapter of the book, I went for a walk.  Not because I was fatigued by the reading.  Okay, not only because I was fatigued.  On this walk, I came upon what appeared to be a woman’s softball championship.  This conclusion I reached only by observation.  There were several fields engaged, with Other teams milling amongst the well-wishers and assorted spectators.  Whether or not this assumption was correct did not become the consuming thought of the moment; I was content to just follow my initial beliefs without further engaging with the phenomenon to understand it (how positivist of me, oh dear…).  Instead, I tarried on a concept I had just been reading about.

            The Other.  Anthropologists’ and ethnographists’ early fixation on non-traditional, non-Occidental, non-“normal” peoples.  Calling them exotic is just another way of saying they are not like us.  Saying they are not like us is saying they deviate from our conceptualization of the world, and thus our normative beliefs that make “us” who “we” are.  Calling them “Other” is just a polite way of calling them deviants.

            These girls I watched, 40, 30, perhaps even 20 years ago, they would’ve been labeled tomboys, as girls who “don’t know their place”, as social deviants, as the Other.  As far as I know, this subgroup of mainstream American society has been the subject of a qualitative inquiry.  I’m not aware of these studies because it’s not my field of interest exactly, although I do study something conceptually similar, media youth cultures.  Like softball players, these are boys and girls whose interests are not completely in line with American mainstream society (although this does not preclude American capitalist interests from propagating and profiting from these cultures).

            So I sat there, watching these girls and their supporters, mulling over this relationship between the Other, subcultures, and mainstream societies.  And I started thinking about the reason researchers were driven to understand the Other.  Those softballers have, for the most part, had their existence accepted, their identity allowed, as softball teams and Other women’s athletics have become accepted, celebrated, and – the ultimate test of acceptance – commoditized. 

            Perhaps, then this is the true reason the Other is the source of scrutiny.  The society observing the Other, the society that has set up the boundaries by which the Other is defined, seeks to understand the nature of the Other under the guise of attempting to control the Other lest the Other gain enough power to challenge the established society.  And one particularly strong means for accomplishing this is through hegemony.  Incorporate a subculture, either in its entirety or at some piecemeal level, so that mainstream society is perceived as not rejecting that subculture, thus placating any of that subculture’s members from rising up in voices against the society.  Keep your enemies close by persuading them that they are actually your friends.

            This, of course, appears to be a very critical condemnation of dominant society.  But it is also survivalism, pure social Darwinism, and can only be described as evil if the intent behind the subjugation proves to be malicious, when a minority voice is squashed with the exact, overt intent to squash it.  Sometimes subjugation of subcultures is not always the result of an intent to exterminate, but an intent to maintain control.  The dominant society says they do it in the “best interest” of the subculture, and those of the mainstream come to believe this, with no maliciousness in their heart, even if the ignorance of their methods can appear to be such in the eyes of those being subjugated.  And the end result can be just as destructive.

            On the other hand, there always exists the possibility that by assimilating the norms and values of a subculture, some aspect of the society, that was driving this trepidation and oppression, might itself be the aspect influenced so that there is no longer a need for such a mindset.  In other words, by subjugating and claiming some aspect of a subculture as mainstream, over time these values may actually become part of mainstream, which can result in the betterment or advancement of the society so that such a need for oppression does not again appear.  Such a process could be seen in the acceptance of female athletes, as it aided the overall feminist-equality movement.

            True, not all of this crept into my head while I watched the girls play ball.  I also thought about how the Other is a unit of perspective.  The Other can be understood to be a whole culture or society, like the “primitives” anthropologists sought at the beginning of the 20th century.  But then again, if the Other is defined as something unlike the norm, then it could be constituted at any level of analysis.  A family unit or peer group can be seen as the Other, if this grouping can be framed as in some way being exotic: a white lesbian couple raising a black son; a gothic click that likes to go to football games.  Decreasing the sample size, a single Other person can be conceptualized as the Other, such as the young student with specific types of learning disabilities.  It might even be possible to research oneself as the “Other”, given different circumstances.  What am I like when I am grieving the death of my favorite grandparent?  What am I like after having sex for the first time?  Do I deviate from myself?  Or if you are a deviant from society, you could study yourself in relation to a larger deviant subculture, or just yourself without such connections. 

            Perhaps that’s another reason we like to study the Other.  In some way, we are all the Other.  In seeking to understand the Other, we often set out to also understand ourselves.  Not just if one is a deviant, studying fellow deviants, to understand what about oneself and society has led to this status.  There is also the great drive to understand human beings.  In the sense of the universal human spirit, and in the sense of understanding the boundaries that infringe upon this spirit. 

            In a sense, then, understanding the Other transcends all the units of perspective this Other may be studied as.  We seek to know the culture/society that both fosters and hinders this human.  We want to know the grouping this Other is in, how such interpersonal forces act upon it, and how this human interacts within this group.  We seek to know the individual, the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, all those interior and exterior events that make this person so like us and yet so unlike us all at once.  We seek to understand Others so as to understand ourselves, and to thus create a connection between the two. 

            After all, creating connections to not be alone is what makes us human.

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