Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity | Charles K. Bellinger

Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity

The following is an excerpt from Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity by Charles K. Bellinger. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

On the Word “Othering”

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING QUOTATIONS. The first is from Alexander Stephens, who served as the vice president of the Confederate States from 1862 to 1865:

“A scale, from the lowest degree of inferiority to the highest degree of superiority, runs through all animal life. We see it in the insect tribes—we see it in the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, in the beasts of the earth, and we see it in the races of men. . . . If there is any fixed principle or law of nature it is this. In the races of men we find like differences in capacity and development. The Negro is inferior to the white man; nature has made him so; observation and history, from the remotest times, establish the fact. . . . In the social and political system of the South the Negro is assigned to that subordinate position for which he is fitted by the laws of nature. Our system of civilization is founded in strict conformity to these laws. Order and subordination, according to the natural fitness of things, is the principle upon which the whole fabric of our Southern institutions rests.”

The second quotation comes from Vladimir Lenin:

“Thousands of practical forms and methods of accounting and controlling the rich, the rogues and the idlers should be devised and put to a practical test by the communes themselves, by small units in town and country. Variety is a guarantee of vitality here, a pledge of success in achieving the single common aim—to cleanse the land of Russia of all sorts of harmful insects, of crook-fleas, of bedbugs—the rich, and so on and so forth. In one place half a score of rich, a dozen crooks, half a dozen workers who shirk their work . . . will be put in prison. In another place they will be put to cleaning latrines. In a third place they will be provided with “yellow tickets” after they have served their time, so that all the people shall have them under surveillance, as harmful persons, until they reform. In a fourth place, one out of every ten idlers will be shot on the spot. In a fifth place mixed methods may be adopted, and by probational release, for example, the rich, the bourgeois intellectuals, the crooks and hooligans who are corrigible will be given an opportunity to reform quickly. The more variety there will be, the better and richer will be our general experience, the more certain and more rapid will be the success of socialism, and the easier will it be for practice to devise—for only practice can devise—the best methods and means of struggle.”

The next quotation comes from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf:

“[The Jew’s] extension to ever-new countries occurs only in the moment in which certain conditions for his existence are there present, without which—unlike the nomad—he would not change his residence. He is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him. And the effect of his existence is also like that of spongers: wherever he appears, the host people dies out after a shorter or longer period.”

Consider now this passage from the manifesto that was written by Patrick Crusius, who shot and killed twenty-two people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 3, 2019:

“Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs. They will turn Texas into an instrument of a political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country. The environment is getting worse by the year. If you take nothing else from this document, remember this: INACTION IS A CHOICE. I can no longer bear the shame of inaction knowing that our founding fathers have endowed me with the rights needed to save our country from the brink of destruction. Our European comrades don’t have the gun rights needed to repel the millions of invaders that plague their country. They have no choice but to sit by and watch their countries burn. America can only be destroyed from the inside-out. If our country falls, it will be the fault of traitors. This is why I see my actions as faultless. Because this isn’t an act of imperialism but an act of preservation.”

What do these quotations have in common? We are pointing out the obvious when we say that they are dividing up the human race into different groups, in-groups and out-groups, the favored and the disfavored. The person writing the words sees himself as superior to the people he is denigrating and vilifying. The words are not empty gestures; they are connected with and seek to justify acts of violence against members of the out-group.

The word “othering” is a trendy term in academic circles today, though outside those circles it is not commonly used. It is an updated version of words such as prejudice, discrimination, difference, oppression, bias, and scapegoating. As such, it occupies an important place in the attempt of human beings to understand their own tendency to think and act along lines that divide the human race into different groups and to treat the disfavored groups badly. The main sense in which the word “othering” is an improvement on past terms is that it is connected in current discourse with the idea that a person’s self-image is formed through the mental act of othering. “I” gain a sense of who “I” am by convincing myself that I am not the other; “I” am white, the other is black; or “I” am a superior Aryan, in contrast to the Jews; or, “I” am a Brahmin, not one of the caste of the untouchables. I point to just three obvious examples out of the myriad that we find in history. The sense of “I-ness” or “We-ness” in contrast with otherness are phenomena that are codependent and mutually reinforcing in the process of the formation of the human being’s self-image. Natalie Grove and Anthony Zwi put it this way: “Othering defines and secures one’s own identity by distancing and stigmatizing an(other). Its purpose is to reinforce notions of our own ‘normality,’ and to set up the difference of others as a point of deviance. The person or group being ‘othered’ experiences this as a process of marginalization, disempowerment and social exclusion.”

But I have jumped ahead to the more recent term too quickly. It is appropriate to look back at some of the other terms in this genre. Sir James Frazer, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropologist, wrote extensively on the concept of the scapegoat:

“The notion that we can transfer our guilt and sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind. It arises from a very obvious confusion between the physical and the mental, between the material and the immaterial. Because it is possible to shift a load of wood, stones, or what not, from our own back to the back of another, the savage fancies that it is equally possible to shift the burden of his pains and sorrows to another, who will suffer them in his stead. Upon this idea he acts, and the result is an endless number of very unamiable devices for palming off upon some one else the trouble which a man shrinks from bearing himself. In short, the principle of vicarious suffering is commonly understood and practiced by races who stand on a low level of social and intellectual culture.”

Frazer’s assumption that modern Western people inhabit a higher level of social and intellectual culture has not stood the test of time well. It is itself an example of what we now understand as othering.

Kenneth Burke was a twentieth-century thinker, a self-taught genius who read widely in literature, philosophy, the social sciences, and religion. He noted that modern Western people who think that they are more advanced than the “savages” because they are rational and secular—instead of superstitious and religious—are deceiving themselves. The modern world is characterized, in Burke’s view, as consisting of “secular” analogues to earlier forms of behavior. He pointed to the Nazis as obvious examples of irrational persecutors and was describing Hitler’s “hours of vituperation” that were inversions of sacred “hours of prayer” in the late 1930s. Many readers of René Girard are surprised to learn that Burke was already using the phrase “the scapegoat mechanism” in 1935. For Burke, the center of human motivations, in any time period, is found in the cluster of terms: guilt/victimage/catharsis, and scapegoating is the key means of catharsis.

Harvard University psychology professor Gordon Allport published The Nature of Prejudice in 1954. It was a broad overview of the social scientific and philosophical work that had been done to that point in an attempt to understand racism in the United States, the Nazi attack on the Jews, and similar phenomena in human history. Note that the year in which it was published also saw the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended racial segregation in public schooling and marked a key milestone in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Allport provided a five-point summary of his findings in these terms:

1. Antilocution. Most people who have prejudices talk about them. With like-minded friends, occasionally with strangers, they may express their antagonism freely. But many people never go beyond this mild degree of antipathetic action.

2. Avoidance. If the prejudice is more intense, it leads the individual to avoid members of the disliked group, even perhaps at the cost of considerable inconvenience. In this case, the bearer of prejudice does not directly inflict harm upon the group he dislikes. He takes the burden of accommodation and withdrawal entirely upon himself.

3. Discrimination. Here the prejudiced person makes detrimental distinctions of an active sort. He undertakes to exclude all members of the group in question from certain types of employment, from residential housing, political rights, educational or recreational opportunities, churches, hospitals, or from some other social privileges. Segregation is an institutionalized form of discrimination, enforced legally or by common custom.

4. Physical attack. Under conditions of heightened emotion prejudice may lead to acts of violence or semiviolence. An unwanted Negro family may be forcibly ejected from a neighborhood, or so severely threatened that it leaves in fear. Gravestones in Jewish cemeteries may be desecrated. The Northside’s Italian gang may lie in wait for the Southside’s Irish gang.

5. Extermination. Lynchings, pogroms, massacres, and the Hitlerian program of genocide mark the ultimate degree of violent expression of prejudice.

This five-hundred-page book goes into great detail regarding the roots of prejudice and how it is transferred generationally and also addresses the resources that are available for promoting tolerance and positive social change. Those who have the most highly prejudiced attitudes and who have the most poorly developed ability to engage in introspection about those attitudes are described by Allport as manifesting a kind of existential autism.

A decisive advance in thinking about scapegoating was achieved by René Girard in his two foundational books, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961) and Violence and the Sacred (1972). He had read Frazer and Burke, of course, as well as vast swaths of history, literature, and anthropological research into human violence. His thesis is not without its critics, but it has proven to be extremely thought-provoking. He argues that human beings copy the desires of others around them; they seek to possess what others possess and to achieve the sense of “success” and recognition that others seem to have, as their culture defines “success.” But when human beings mimetically copy the desires of others, they become rivals of those others and conflict, envy, and strife will develop. Societies prevent themselves from melting down into chaotic violence by choosing scapegoats as a release valve for the pent-up frustrations and animosities of their members. The killing of the scapegoat provides a temporary feeling of catharsis and social unanimity, but the feeling fades away eventually and the cycle needs to be repeated. For Girard, the designation of the scapegoat is the originary act of “othering,” though he does not use that term, per se. (It was not trendy in the academic world, yet, but perhaps his writings can be credited for creating an atmosphere in which it could become widely used.) The violent mob is “othering” the one it kills by blaming the victim as the source of evil and guilt while thinking of itself as (in contrast) righteous.

My full book Othering (from which this introduction is drawn) seeks to further the discussion by addressing two key questions: (1) Why do human beings engage in othering? (2) Can othering be validly criticized but in a half-ignorant way; that is, can someone be sensitized to one form of othering but engaged in another form of othering without realizing it? The first question points to the deep roots of violence in the human psyche. There can be accounts of various examples of othering in journal articles and books that remain at the level of description. They do not ask deeper, more probing questions about why human beings engage in othering. The second question points to the complexity of the human condition; it is possible that people can be critical of one form of othering while they remain blind to another form of othering that they are themselves engaging in. (This was the gist of Harold Fromm’s critique of the essay by Mary Louise Pratt, that the now fashionable academic discourse regarding how early modern Europeans “othered” Africans and other non-white peoples is ironically and hypocritically being replicated by the academics in the writing of their essays. They are establishing their moral superiority to the colonizers, just as the colonizers were doing to the colonized peoples.) A basic thesis of this book as a whole is that it is this precise issue that must be taken into consideration if we want to understand the “culture wars” and various forms of polarization that are so obvious in Western culture today. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, various people are seizing upon and criticizing some forms of othering, not realizing that there are other forms that they are blind to. This is a critique of both the Right and the Left.

The following chapters will examine the concept of othering from four different angles. The anthropological angle utilizes the idea that reality has three main dimensions as it is inhabited by human beings: the vertical axis (the divine and nature, the transcendent and the immanent, the spiritual and the physical); the horizontal plane (society, culture, human relationality); and individual selfhood. Many authors have elucidated these dimensions in various ways. My concern here is to show how the dimensions can become vectors within which othering operates in a focused way. The historical angle points to examples in human history that demonstrate othering in action and also voices that spoke up against othering. If there is such a thing as moral progress in human history it surely consists in the strengthening of such voices. The rights language angle focuses on the rhetoric of “rights,” which is a highly contested concept in the modern world. Rights language is one attempt to struggle against and delegitimize othering; it seems that everyone (with a few noted exceptions) wants to use rights language in support of their cause, but the number of people who want to take a step back and reflect on what they mean by “rights” is much smaller. This situation can be improved. And finally, the theological angle considers the subtitle of the book. What might it mean to say that othering is the original sin of humanity, and what pointers in the direction of redemption can be brought into articulation? The well-known story of Adam and Eve suggests that the Serpent persuaded them to think of themselves as being in a relationship of rivalry with God. What if that slicing apart of what should be a communion of love between the Creator and the creature is at the root of the many forms of conflict and violence that we see in human existence? And what if inhabiting all three of the dimensions of reality in a holistic and symphonic way could be just the medicine we need to overcome othering?

Praise for Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity

“Charles Bellinger has provided a powerful analysis of the modes of dehumanization that have tragically marred our civilization. What is needed in our moment of political and ideological polarization is a recovery of the profound wisdom and insight of the doctrine of original sin.”
Justin Buckley Dyer, author of Slavery, Abortion, and the Politics of Constitutional Meaning

“Charles Bellinger has written a truly magisterial and engrossing tour de force on the central theme of our contemporary world, the radical discord of our age and its many manifestations—political, spiritual, and personal. … The transcendent God is not merely among the genus of ‘beings,’ per se, but the Holy Other against whom to harbor a resentment or rivalry (our original sin) effectively derails our golden opportunity to take the ancient confession of the Shema—and the words of the Prophets and Christ himself—to grow into full human maturity, both individually and societally.”
Nicholas A. Marziani, retired Senior Priest, Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter

About the Author

Charles K. Bellinger

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil and The Trinitarian Self: The Key to the Puzzle of Violence.


One Response to Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity | Charles K. Bellinger

  1. Jendi November 18, 2022 at 9:18 am #

    This is an important and insightful piece, but please stop using “autism” as shorthand for a lack of empathy or emotional intelligence. It is not that we don’t feel or understand emotions, but that neurotypical culture refuses to recognize our communication style as valid. Just goes to show how “othering” is a reflex for us all…

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