If we dare to start to look at the similarities of ourselves with others, we’ll take a first step toward healing trauma both on an individual and a collective level.
It is a fact that white colonists of this continent have always emphasized their differences with other groups, be it Native or Black Americans, which may have invited a mindset that allows for punishment in the US to be savage and inhumane. There is no need to remind you of the brutalities that took place over the past centuries up to today, we all have vivid images of it in our mind’s eye.
We carry with us either a feeling of collective shame or a feeling of collective guilt. Shame is an old friend to those cultures that have always been suppressed and or nearly have been eradicated. Guilt more often seeks companionship with those belonging to the oppressive culture. Although these cultures may be experiencing a different emotion, it is wise to notice that they all suffer from a deeply generational wound. A wound that I’d like to call Otherness.
It was philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who first described the term Otherness. Like philosophers before him he says we identify the other human being as different from the Self, that being an important factor in building ones self-image, and not bad in itself.
On a societal level though, otherness may bring about some unwanted outcomes. Otherness, being seen as a person’s non-conformity to and with the social norms of society, is according to Husserl responsible for disenfranchisement, alienating the person labelled as the Other from the center of society.
Othering people excludes them from our social group–which is an extended version of the Self–and places them at the margins of society. Mainstream social norms do not apply there, nor religious ones like ‘Do unto others… as ye would have others do unto ye’.
I would say the notion of Otherness runs through our veins because we are quintessentially driven by fear. In a world full of fear, in order to survive, it’s imperative that one stays in control–and the danger does not come from the outside only, it is lurking within us too. Have you ever been truly disrespected? Did you not hate that feeling that arose inside you because of being shamed? Most of us fear painful feelings like this since they reign us and push us instantly into the realm of non-control: the fight, flight or freeze mode, and we may do some real ugly stuff while being in that mode…
For the same reason we are fearful of people who have to deal with issues that we do not feel comfortable with. Rather than dealing with feelings of awkwardness, insecurity, pain and helplessness over someone else’s life situation, we prefer to expel the others from our lives and from our group. By expelling “those other people”, we can feel in control again: we no longer are being threatened by having to face their problems and not knowing what to do with the situation. To be able to wash our hands of them, we then call them the irresponsible ones, the unwilling ones, the unreliable ones, the temperamental ones.
Yes there is a but–of course. What we don’t seem to realize is that, as Brené Brown writes ‘most of us are just one paycheck, one divorce, one drug-addicted kid, one mental health diagnosis, one sexual assault, one drinking binge away from being “those people”–the ones that we don’t trust, the ones we pity, the ones we don’t let our children play with, the ones bad things happen to, the ones we don’t want living next door’.
Letting that sink in, you might come to realize that we are not so different from those others after all. Otherness then, seems to be merely a construct by which we are able to defend ourselves from insecurity and lack of control. Elaborating on Husserl’s premise that we use Otherness as a way to build a Self, I would say that the more shaky one’s self-image is, the more they have to reject the other as a way to stay “in control” of their (inner) lives.
I would never…
“Yeah, I get that”, I can almost hear you say, “But I would never kill another human. Or rape. Or abuse a kid.” Now that’s a clear and bold statement. Is it true though? Can you be absolutely certain of that? Research has shown that most people who have endured child abuse will very likely severely hurt other people or themselves. Research has shown that being humiliated–being shamed to the bone–renders humans into killers over time. Other research revealed that almost all people will actually inflict a lethal electrical shock upon another human when being told to do so by someone in charge.
Otherness becomes irrelevant in examples like this, since race, class or gender have little to do with the human reactions when one is under stress. We do not differ in the ways we try to master emotions like pain, shame, fear and anger. Although culture may dictate a certain preference to the kind of behavior one shows to the outer world, what’s going on on the inside is universal.
So you see, you are no different from the average mental ill person, the homeless, the shoplifter, the rapist even; the only difference being that you have suffered less adverse childhood experiences, which increase the likelihood of suffering from trauma and recurring trauma reactions in later life, which increases the likelihood of becoming an offender, which increases the likelihood of becoming a prisoner, which increases the likelihood of becoming labeled as a person non-conform to and with the social norms of society: the Other. Furthermore, being labeled as the Other can be a traumatic experience in itself: being rejected is a core cause of trauma experiences in childhood and may lead to a person who is prone to react to any rejection with the fight, flight, freeze mode–remember the ugly stuff I mentioned before? Just think of the myriad ways we reject each other. And then think of its traumatic consequences on the individual level, on the family level, on the community level.
On the punitive and the juridical level.
If we dare to start looking at the similarities of ourselves with others, we’ll be taking a first step toward healing trauma both on an individual and a collective level. Healing trauma may then become a starting point to rethink punishment.