“Otherizing” means placing people outside of the circle of “us.” It appears to be an innate and universal human capacity. It’s dangerous, because as soon as we see people as “other,” the brain automatically begins to devalue them and to justify bad treatment of them.
Otherizing lies at the root of virtually all of humanity’s most intractable problems – racism, sexism, homophobia, militant nationalism, religious bigotry, etc. We’d obviously all be better off without it. So how did it ever arise in the first place? Anthropology offers some important insights.
For millions of years, our ancestors lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes. They were threatened by predators, starvation, and disease, and had to compete with other tribes for scarce resources. In these harsh conditions, those who cooperated with others in their tribe typically lived longer and had more offspring. Natural selection favored the evolution of love, cooperation, empathy, loyalty, and fairness within tribes. But those same evolutionary pressures also favored ruthless aggression toward members of competing tribes.
Cooperation and aggression evolved synergistically. Tribes that were more cooperative were also more successfully aggressive, and aggression toward other tribes demanded cooperation within tribes. Hence the strange duality in human nature: We’re capable of deep love and inspiring acts of self-sacrifice; but we’re also capable of limitless cruelty. Tribalism is alive and well in the structures of our brains.
But while the capacity for otherizing is deeply ingrained, the more lately evolved structures of the brain can alter the behavior of the more primitive structures. Our unique capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and deliberate intention give us a unique capacity for freedom of action.
Otherizing turns off the neural pathways mediating compassion and empathy, which is why trying to feel empathy for a despised other can evoke intense resistance, sometimes rationalized by thoughts about how they don’t deserve it, or by the strange belief that to feel empathy for “bad” people somehow allows them to get away with something. But if you can see the humanity in your enemy, the intensity of otherizing automatically begins to diminish.
It can be helpful to remember these words from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” This has nothing to do with excusing bad behavior or condoning injustice. We can strongly condemn cruel actions while simultaneously remembering the humanity of the actor. Cultivating the habit of seeing “bad actors” as also “us” takes patience, but it can be done.
In his book Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson tells the story of a beloved Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: ‘In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.’”
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.