I’ve benefited immensely from my read of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, and lately I’ve been blogging through a few reflections on the implications and impact of that work. Today I want to think about Othering, Bulverism, and the danger of labelling.
‘Othering’ is a formal concept where I employ an identifying metric in my encounters with an ‘other’ in such a way that I both highlight the differences and reinforce my sense of self. In the encounter between my self and an other, the other is used as a foil for my own identity, and in the process I often fail to see him or her as a real person, with real narrative, and with real information to bring to a relational engagement. Today I want to reflect on how defining a process such as ‘othering’ is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time.
First, it is helpful because it does indeed describe many of the historic, and ongoing, interactions between the West and other cultures. One doesn’t have to search far to find evidence of Western reductionism, selfishness, and fetishization of non-Western ‘others.’ Orientalism has allowed the West to compartmentalize, and then no longer see, a group—by rendering them invisible, they can be ignored, reduced in narrative, and made simple. In short, Orientalism has been a disposition that makes discrimination possible. In this, as a label it is helpful as a diagnostic tool to mark, identify, and seek to redress these abuses.
At the same time, I think it can also be unhelpful. One of the hallmarks of modern discourse is labelling—if I can effectively and evocatively label a situation, or a wrong, then I can summarily defeat it. Think of the power of big labels such as “racism,” “abuse,” and “intolerance.” Think also of the power of lesser labels, such as “Becky,” “Wypipo,” “millennial,” or “snowflake.” If I can successfully label you, then I can summarily dismiss you. Partly, this appears to be nothing more than a turning of the tables—where once, the West in power labelled and dismissed non-Western others, now non-Western others are able to label and dismiss the West.
I was reminded, here, of something C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock (also published as Undeceptions), specifically about just and unjust arguments. His description is worth quoting in full:
In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
In other words, the application of a preconditioned label—racist, liberal, Trump-supporter, snowflake, millennial, Baby Boomer, etc.—is sufficient argument enough. No more needs to be said, and no listening needs to happen. The argument, by virtue of the label, is rendered complete.
Crucial in Said’s account of Orientalism is his appeal to a kind of listening as a tonic for the abuses of the past—toward this goal, he utilizes the label of ‘othering’ as a diagnostic tool, but he does this in order to make an appeal for better communication and understanding between the East and West. In his own words, he argues that “there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge—if that is what it is—that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency and outright war.” (Orientalism, xiv, emphasis added) When labels are simply a power-play, then they can no longer facilitate this process.
In view of this, I am reminded of Jesus’s words from Matthew 5:22,
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell
Note that in this passage Jesus is giving instructions for how we are to behave when our brother has something against us (he says this explicitly in verse 23). We, in other words, are the offender in this passage. But our response is illuminating—first, we become angry with our brother for bringing a charge against us, then we call him a name (“good-for-nothing”), and finally we ascribe to him a label, “fool.” Labelling, in this passage, is the process of hardening our hearts to the claim of our brothers or sisters. It diminishes and reduces the complexity of the person. It is the antithesis of listening, and in Jesus’ instruction it is equated, in the end, to murder.
Does that mean that no one is ever a fool? Of course not. There are scads of them. Just as there are scads of genuine snowflakes and racists in the world. But when we misuse those labels in petty power plays and in a context devoid of genuine listening, we put ourselves on what, according to Jesus, is a highly dangerous trajectory.