As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading through (and benefitting from) Edward Said’s Orientalism, and I’m taking advantage of a few blog posts to think through elements of his book. Today I want to think about certain aspects of the concept of “othering.”
Othering is an idea that Said employs to disentangle the difficult relationship between the Orient and the Occident. As far as I understand, othering is a process of perception in which the ‘other’ is conceived as different in such a way that the difference reinforces my own sense of identity. I am not examining an ‘other’ to find out more about the other, to discover his or her history, family relationships, culture, sense of self-identity, values, teleology, and so forth. Instead, I view the other through a more rigid lens of my own perception. I identify a ‘them’ so that I can better reinforce my sense of ‘us,’ I clearly demarcate ‘outsiders’ so that I can feel more secure in my own insider status. The key, it seems to me, is that the other is viewed not for him or herself, but primarily with reference to my own knowledge, and sense of self, and the security of my own identity. History makes it clear that this kind of process has been at work in the West’s treatment of the Orient.
Within this, Said seems to be well aware that some form of othering is a necessary part of cultural engagement. Discovering a boundary between myself, and my self-perception, and another and that other’s self-perception, is always a self-reflexive activity. David Augsburger, commenting on this reality, once wrote that “He who knows one culture knows no culture.” This is true because culture only becomes visible on the boundaries, in comparison and contrast. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeing more clearly in the ‘other’ where I differ. As a personal example, I learned more about myself as an American by living in Canada, working with Vietnamese and then Chinese churches, than I would have known otherwise. My experience of the other has generated a marked and beneficial increase in my self-awareness. I would say that I’m a better person because of those experiences.
However, the Western pattern of othering has, historically speaking, reflected a more insidious flavour. Specifically, it would appear that the power dynamic of the West—including, but not limited to, its sense of superiority, manifest destiny, and self-referentiality—has caused this otherwise natural othering relationship to generate distortions. On my read, I see this taking the form of flattening, and of fetishization. In this post I want to focus on the flattening.
The West flattens the Orient in a variety of ways, not least of which is in the absurdly broad categorization that a concept like the “Orient” requires. Orientalism, Said writes with some understatement, “is a field with considerable geographical ambition.” (50) This results in a collapse in specificity—what qualifies as Oriental is as broad as China, Vietnam, Japan, Egypt, Syria, and Afghanistan, to name a few. This begs questions—what kind of food are we eating when we eat “Oriental” food? What kind of person are we speaking to when we speak to an “Oriental” person? What kind of subject are we studying when we read an “Oriental” book? The vagueness is problematic in itself, but it extends to individual persons as well. Many are content to collapse the dizzying variety of eastern races into a single class, “Oriental” (Asians are often flattened in this way to a single category) while at the same time privileging what would be the equivalent western disambiguations (Italian, Irish, German, etc.). In continuity with this, is it not possible that the phrase, “all Asians look alike” speaks more of Western self-perception than it does of actual Asian reality?
An important counterpoint to this is to remember that there really is no way to escape stereotyping—it’s hard-wired into how our brains take in new information. We filter new data into categories of known data. It’s how we make sense of things. Consequently, our first steps into the world of the other commonly involves our recourse to what is assumed, or known by reputation. Almost all encounters between cultures (where there is at least some knowledge of the other beforehand) involves basic stereotyping. The problem arises—and this is terribly important—when I don’t allow the new data of the real person sitting in front of me to challenge that type. The problem is when I stop listening and project what I think to be true on the person, rejecting him or her in the process. And this, of course, appears to be very often precisely what the West has done in relation to the East. It has clutched its stereotypes, then demanded that those who have been othered conform to the type. This flattens a foreign culture, reducing it so that it will fit within my perceptions.
As I thought about these matters, I began to wonder—is there an othering relationship at play between the Kingdom of God and human culture, whether Oriental or Occidental? There is radical, disjunctive difference between the Kingdom and the world. In that relationship the Kingdom possesses immense power to shape, define, and identify. A crucial difference, however, is that the Kingdom has no need of human culture to self-reflexively know itself. It does not depend upon outsiders to be itself, or, rather, to be more itself. All the same, in its power relationship to the world, the Kingdom defines us, orders us, reshapes us, and sets our aspirations. That is to say, despite its perfect self-knowledge the kingdom is still a genuinely imperialistic force. It approaches the world—East and West alike—with the intention of invasion, interpretation, and reformation. Like the Oriental/Occidental dynamic, it is the Kingdom that gets to tell me who and what I am. It holds all the power.
There are further differences, however. The Kingdom holds this power by right—it deserves it. The West utilizes this power by accident of history. Where the Kingdom by right redefines the world, East and West alike, the West does not possess the authority to redefine the other according to its pleasure. In fact, what may make the particular cultural sins of the West more grim is the appropriation of Kingdom power for its own purposes. The West has done things to the world in the name of the Kingdom, and that corrupted, self-referential use of Godly power has not only done damage to the East, it has poisoned the power of the message the West was privileged to inherit. In presuming to speak with the authority of the Kingdom of God toward the rest of the world, the West has ascribed to itself an undue holiness, an improper destiny. Rather than bringing the Kingdom to the East as a subject of it, the West has often enough presumed itself to be the Kingdom. This has created situations where the West falsely legitimizes its oppression by appeal to the Kingdom.
Additionally, where in the hands of the West this othering power has flattened other cultures, the Kingdom of God does not flatten. Yes, it is imperialistic. Yes, it redefines and shapes according to its dictates, but fundamentally the Kingdom is about bringing life to the world in all its variety. Under the effects of the othering of the Kingdom of God, we are not less ourselves, but more ourselves than ever we were before. This is a great mystery.
Rowan Williams, writing about St John of the Cross, said the following: “To be absorbed in the sheer otherness of any created order or beauty is to open the door to God, because it involves that basic displacement of the dominating ego without which there can be no spiritual growth.” (The Wound of Knowledge, 176) To step from this language into our discussion suggests—I think rightly—that in the context of all true othering, we lose ego and gain self, while false, distorted othering causes us to clutch ego and lose our selves.