You’ve probably heard it so many times before. That if we just start to love thy neighbour, everything will be okay.
But here’s the problem.
We’re beyond that.
Love thy neighbour might have been great advice decades ago but not now.
Not when we have an epidemic on our hands.
An epidemic in which too many of us are keeping quiet about the things that matter.
An epidemic of the morally corrupt going unchallenged.
An epidemic of silence. And as we all know, silence breeds hatred.
Silence breeds inequality.
Silence breeds injustice.
We tell ourselves we’re just one voice and that our one voice can’t make a difference.
We use it as permission to stay quiet.
To not speak up about the things we know are wrong.
But one voice can make a difference.
One voice can remind us that while we may look different on the outside, on the inside, where it matters, most of us need and want the same things – love and connection.
And to belong.
To feel like we’re a part of something.
To feel like we’re accepted for who we are.
The Pervasive Problem of Othering
When you turn on the news at night and see the conflict in Syria or the famine in Africa what do you feel?
The images of war and deprivation that we’re bombarded with on a daily basis may temporarily stir something inside of us but this is often replaced very swiftly with a numbness that enables us to carry on our daily lives.
We may feel sad about what is going on around the world but ultimately something inside of us feels we are too small to make a difference; that it is their problem, not our problem.
That mentality of ‘othering’, of separating ourselves out from certain groups of people, allows us to minimize the anxiety we feel of what’s going on in the world.
If you don’t in some way belong to me, if we’re not a part of the same group, then I don’t have as much to be anxious about.
I can feel sad about what’s happening to you but it’s not happening to me and therefore I can compartmentalize it in such a way that enables me to continue on living my life.
The reality is that as human beings there is only so much social anxiety we can take and therefore we choose to focus on the well-being of the groups we feel we most belong to, the groups we feel the most connection with.
Othering is how we structure our lives and keep ourselves safe.
Within our communities, we may engage in othering based on:
- sexual orientation
- socioeconomic status
….to name but a few.
Whatever form othering takes it is designed to propagate inequality and marginalize those groups of people we deem as not belonging.
Or more specifically, not belonging to us.
As John A Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, points out, othering is not about liking or disliking someone but is rather based on the conscious or unconscious belief that a particular group poses a threat to the power held by a dominant group.
The simple solution offered to the complex problem of othering is often based solely around the idea that the answer lies in being able to feel and display more empathy for one another.
Yet this is not quite as easy as it sounds.
Why Love Thy Neighbour Is So Difficult
Logically, to varying degrees, we all know this to be the answer.
We all know that love, connection, and belonging should not be contingent on being of a certain sex, race, or religion.
We all know that racism and hatred leave us morally and spiritually bankrupt.
We all know that every life is worthy. That everyone deserves kindness and respect.
We all know that our ability to feel empathy for another person should not be based on the colour of their skin.
We all know we should feel empathy for other people’s suffering.
But herein lies the problem.
While research would suggest that human beings are soft-wired for empathy, the degree of empathy that we feel is largely determined on how closely we feel we belong to the other person.
That is, how similar are they to us in age, gender, race, religious beliefs, and lifestyle. Or, to put it another way, how much of us can we see in them and how safe do they make us feel?
If we are able to see ourselves in another, to recognise a whole bunch of similarities that connect and unite us, this will make us feel safe, which will in turn trigger an empathetic response to their suffering.
If, however, we are unable to find any obvious common ground, our threat system is likely to be activated, this ‘other’ person likely to be deemed unsafe.
When we feel unsafe we are unable to feel empathy for another.
So while love thy neighbour is great advice it demonstrates an inability to understand just how empathy works in the body; the activation of which is determined by a myriad of external circumstances operating outside of our conscious awareness.
All Is Not Lost
While the outlook may sound bleak, the problem of othering is not without a solution.
There is an individual responsibility to be taken but telling individuals to love they neighbour in a world dominated by violence and hatred, is simply asking too much.
Many people, although heartsick at what is going on around the globe, feel powerless to affect change.
The tagline of ‘I’m just one voice and one voice can’t make a difference’ spills out from mouths that feel trapped and constrained by a system that does not serve them.
First and foremost change must start with the very institutions and structural features that perpetuate group-based inequality.
Some of these laws are explicit while others are implied and often unspoken but all are driven by the same goal – to marginalize and repress those who are perceived to threaten the power of the dominant white majority.
Those who have always slept easy as a result of the luxuries afforded to them by way of their membership into the dominant group will neither wish to admit their advantages nor give them up without a fight.
That is what we are working with.
Power. Greed. Ego
And those are not easy forces to fight back against.
Yet as a system fight back we must.
We have already learned multiple times over throughout history that segregation and othering only heightens dehumanization, denying each other’s full humanity and strengthening group inequality and division.
Assimilation, whereby the dominant group seeks to absorb the subordinate group and convert them, sees devastating losses to cultural knowledge and identity.
The desire for sameness that lies at the heart of assimilation attempts removes the beautiful tapestry of richness and diversity that adds so much colour to the world; creating something beige and soulless in its place.
We must strive therefore not for segregation or assimilation but for true belonging.
A Societal Membership Of Belonging
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we do not function as we are meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
– Brene Brown
All too often we hear phrases that encourage us to ‘respect’ or ‘tolerate’ difference.
But to tolerate implies that there is something to be tolerated.
Something that is different to us.
Tolerance implies that in some way ‘the other’, whether that be an individual or a group, is not quite right, not doing things right like we, the dominant group, are.
In order to see real change we must move away from tolerance towards true belonging, whereby we all, regardless of what we look like or where we’ve come from, are granted membership to one group.
Belonging must exist in our communities and it must exist in our institutions.
It must be on display in our laws and in our policies.
We must be inclusive yet remain flexible to our differing needs.
We must commit to the production of a narrative that says love and belonging is the birth right of every single person on this planet and we must act accordingly.
We cannot deny the fear and anxiety that exists within society but we can choose how we channel it.
Towards anger and hatred or towards love and empathy.
We must stand in collective solidarity in full awareness that the world is capable of so much better than what it is currently producing and we must demand better.
From each of us.
For all of us.
Because this is not their problem. This is our problem.