As you may have heard, there’s been some kind of global pandemic sweeping the planet the last month or two. We’re all dealing with a potentially deadly virus. Another wave of infectious disease has followed in its wake. Stuck at home with not much to do, many of us have subscribed to all sorts of theories about what’s really going on, and who is really to blame.
As I see it, there is yet another pandemic underlying all of this, which is what we have always done, as homosapiens. It is called “othering.”
Let me explain.
Most of us emerged from childhood with some kind of relationship to authority. If your parents were generally kind and rewarded you for good behavior, you learned to be obedient. Through trial and error, you found that if you did what you were told to do by the people calling the shots, you would get more pleasure.
If your parents were unreliable, cruel, or even alcoholic, then once you entered into your teenage years, you realized that it was not safe to go along with an erratic agenda. You needed to create distance. In this way, you learned that the best way to survive was to rebel against what you were told to do, and to be in defiance.
Either way, as young adults, we enter into an entangled relationship with authority. If all goes well, once we become independent and autonomous, we learn to make peace with all of that, and then we discover the art of collaboration, and seeking out common ground. But this requires us to become free of the spectrum in which obedience/defiance exists.
As long as we are caught in this dominating/dominated split, we are subject to the ubiquitous habit of “othering.” As this plays out in our later life, we tend to villainize people we don’t know, who seem threatening to us.
Let me give you a few examples.
Did you ever watch the show on Amazon Prime called The Durrell’s in Corfu? If you do, you’ll witness the way the Greek people in the series have an instinctive distrust of the Turks. If someone is Turkish, they are thought to be dishonest, untrustworthy, and out to hurt you. Equally, the few Turkish characters in the series view the Greeks as dirty, lazy, and equally untrustworthy.
This series is a great way to observe “othering” because most people who watch it don’t identify as either Greek or Turkish, and therefore can see how absurd it is to villainize another group of people simply because they seem different from us.
“Othering” has also happened through differences in social class. Perhaps you have watched some of the TV series Downtown Abbey. I remember early on how Lady Mary Crawley (daughter of the ruling elite) is introduced to her cousin Matthew. He works as a solicitor in a small town, which she looks down on as different from her privileged wealth. “I really don’t understand your kind of people,” she says. “Why you have to make life so hard and difficult.” She is viewing her cousin’s lifestyle as if it was something consciously chosen, rather than just what he’s obliged to do.
In the United States, class structure is no longer created simply by the pedigree of your family, but through power and money. In addition to the ways that we “other” people of a different race or a different country, we also other people who have a different relationship to power and money.
I remember once listening to an interview with George W. Bush. He was asked about the poorer people of America who live in the inner cities. With apparent sincerity, Bush leaned towards the interviewer and said “You know, I really don’t understand very well how poor people think. I’d really like to understand better.” In the rest of the interview Bush makes it clear that he assumes that poverty is a lifestyle choice. Some people prefer beer, some prefer wine, some don’t drink at all. Some people prefer a life of luxury; others prefer to live in poverty in the inner cities. Everybody has their preferences, I guess. This is an extreme example of “othering”: being simply unable to empathize with or imagine the lot of people less fortunate than yourself.
But this equally works the other way. There are people who have made the deliberate choice to live simply, perceiving the great injustice of social inequality. Many of my friends have, at one time or another, chosen to live closer to the land, to grow food, and to step out of the “rat race.” Then there is equally the tendency to villainize people who did not make the same choice.
There was recently a popular article on Medium called “Conspirituality.” It demonstrates that people with spiritual values often also subscribe to conspiracy theories because of an inherent distrust of people who chose money and power over simplicity.
I’d love to share with you here my experience of the metamorphosis of this kind of “othering” in my own life.
I grew up in London to parents who divorced when I was four, neither of whom had much money. Just getting by was always a struggle, but somehow my father scraped it together to send me to a private school. Both of my parents came from families which had been wealthy generations before, and so this was something of a tradition. Throughout my teenage years, I was rubbing shoulders with the children of the privileged.
I received a scholarship to Cambridge University, where I spent four years hanging out with the very people who would go on to run the UK. At that time, they were all my friends. We would get drunk together, and then recover from hangovers together the next day. My male friends and I all felt equally insecure around girls, and equally prone to try to show off and look impressive. I guess we didn’t think much back then about whose parents live in a stately home and whose mother was renting a small apartment somewhere.
After university, I moved to India, to the ashram of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh (later known as Osho). He was a fiery exponent for distrust of authority. One of his books was even called “Priests and Politicians: The Mafia of the Soul.” His daily discourses encouraged us to a defiant rebellion against all kinds of organized society. I lived with him first in India, then in Oregon (did you see the Netflix series “Wild, Wild Country”? I was there), and then later again in India.
Once that phase of my life ended, I started to work as a coach, then later to train coaches, and to write books. As luck would have it, some of those books reached people who were offering consulting and coaching services to the very people who run the world. I’ve worked with partners at McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group, and the CEO’s of some very large companies. I’ve coached one of the richest families in the UK.
So ironically, in my life I have gone from being educated with the elite, to judging and distrusting the power that very elite assumed, to then working with that same elite as my clients.
Here is what I have discovered.
When you get to know people under their surface presentation, even people wielding great power and managing budgets of billions of dollars display the same qualities you find anywhere else: insecurity, and all the strange things we do to try to mask it and look good; greed, fueled by the fear of not having enough; feeling incompetent, inadequate, and then blaming others when things don’t work out. Above all, most people suffer from an incapacity for empathy, and the tendency to “other” or marginalize people they don’t feel identified with.
In other words, we are all very much the same. We are all run by fear and greed and rigid, untested beliefs. We all have an outstanding incapacity to tell the truth to ourselves about what’s really going on, and we all tend to alienate people who seem different from us and then to judge them as villainous.
I remember on one vivid occasion, I was teaching at the Harvard Law School annual retreat. It wasn’t just set in a five-star hotel, but a seven-star hotel. I didn’t even know such things existed. Each room was allocated its own private butler.
After the workshops were over for the day, and we had eaten dinner, some people gravitated to the fire pit in the middle of the outside bar. I struck up a conversation with two very pleasant men from Switzerland. They told me, with great pride, that their children went to a Waldorf school. Immediate bonding—so did my two boys. We laughed about how our kids were learning to knit and play the recorder as a higher priority than reading and writing. We swapped photos of our little munchkins, and generally grew to like each other immensely.
Finally, after a good half hour, I casually asked these new friends what work they do in Switzerland. “Oh,” one of them replied with pride, “We are both attorneys representing Monsanto.”
I coughed violently, spraying my surrounding environment with whisky. Oh my God! I’ve been fraternizing with the devil!
At that point in my life, Monsanto represented the peak of evil.
“Um,” I said. “So, how do you feel about the impact your company has?”
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” one of them replied, “we’re helping farmers all over the world. We help create genetically modified crops which have pesticides built into them.”
A light went off in my head. I realized that the enemy is not intentionally evil or malevolent, just limited in understanding. These grinning Swiss fathers simply had different values than me. When I quizzed them a little more, they simply seemed to have not fully considered the possible consequences to what their employer was doing. They also opened my mind that there might be other ways for me to see things as well.
I’ve now had literally hundreds of moments like that. By coaching people who have come through a very different pathway in life, and established different values, I have yet to meet anyone who is essentially evil. All I find is people who, just like me, feel insecure, occasionally greedy and fearful, and not fully connected with themselves.
But we don’t think of things that way, do we? Once we engage in the sport of “othering,” we fail to imagine that people with whom we have no contact might be just the same as us in the quality of their feeling and thinking. We imagine that people we don’t know, either because they speak a different language, are a different race, or have a different socioeconomic position, must be inherently evil.
And so we assume that the way to set the world right is to expose those people, punish them, exterminate them, and then we— the good ones— will remain, and the story will have a happy ending.
Imagine that your house is overrun by termites. If all the termites were really good chaps, more than happy to get along and cooperate with you and to cohabitate together, then you could imagine that the problem is really isolated and localized. There are just a few bad termites, maybe one in a thousand, who are greedy, evil, and ruining the party for everybody. They are influencing all the other termites to destroy your house. All you have to do is squash a very few bad termites, and then everybody will get along.
But it is not like that, is it? The problem is with the essence of termite-ness itself. There’s something inherent to the DNA of a termite which wants to chew on wood. One termite, five termites, half a million termites—same problem. That’s just what termites do.
What if there is no “other?”
What if the people in positions of great power are just like you in essence, just plonked down inside a different movie? What if every single one of us has an innate tendency to exert power over others, given the chance, and what if every single one of us also has the tendency to give power away to others, and feel disempowered?
What if the problem is not to be found in this leader or that leader, or the head of this corporation or that corporation, but in instincts hard wired within homosapiens? According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and other books, we’ve been like this since long before recorded history. Harari documents times when homosapiens eliminated entire herds of buffalo, not to eat them, but just to be able to exert power and violence.
What if the problem that we face in potentially causing our own extinction is not connected to bad leaders, but to something inherent within the genetic conditioning we all share?
(Quick note—please remember that the future of life on Earth is not in jeopardy. The Earth has been here, apparently, for 4.6 billion years, and there have been life forms for about 2 billion of those years. The Earth has seen all kind of life forms thrive and then perish. If we cause our own extinction, because of our predisposition towards “othering” and eventually to violence, the Earth will get over it, in a hundred years, even a thousand years, which is nothing in Earth’s lifespan, and we’ll be forgotten. Other life forms will take our place, maybe more evolved.
What is at stake is not the Earth, or the beauty and life that expresses out of Her. What is at jeopardy is the survival primarily of our species, and the impact we may also have on making other species extinct as well.)
In a sense, this way of looking at things is the worst possible news, because it means we can’t solve our predicament by pointing fingers at specific individuals. The problem is much more ubiquitous. It is to do with the nature of the human monkey. It makes the problem much bigger than we had feared.
At the same time, it is also the best possible news, and opens a real possibility to make a difference.
As soon as we relax the habit of “othering,” and recognize that the problem is not “out there,” but to do with basic animal instincts, we become more self aware. Now we can observe the human tendency to dominate others, to pick fights unnecessarily, to give power away. As we do so, we each become more conscious. That which is aware of these tendencies is not animal in nature. It is consciousness itself, it is awareness. As soon as you observe the animal tendencies of the human monkey, you are no longer identified with being that monkey; you become that which is observing.
Hang out as that for a while. Become curious about the nature of that awareness for a while, and you realize that it also has qualities. It is inherently peaceful, loving, intelligent, and humorous. It has more to do with what we have labeled as “divine,” than what we have labeled as “human.”
Of course, not everyone is willing to do that. Most of us prefer “othering,” blaming, and demonizing others, over observing the fluctuations of our own thoughts and feelings. Many people now recognize that this is the only chink of light in which our sustainable survival rests. If we continue to indulge in widespread “othering,” and exacerbating an atmosphere of conflict and separation, we will, between us, destroy ourselves.
The only sustainable vision we can intelligently imagine for homosapiens to thrive and evolve, is to recognize “othering,” to observe it, and then to expand beyond it, into a way of seeing ourselves that is more honest, and at the same time, more connected.