My grandfather died when I was four. I remember him as sweet, tired, caring, endlessly fascinated by the magic I found in everyday moments and objects, and eternally sad. He was sad with a draining, disconsolate sadness, a kind of hopelessness that seemed to permeate everything he did – but it never stopped him. He never stopped doing what he thought was right: bringing harmony (or at least tolerance) into his family, bringing reason into discourse, reminding people that human fallibilities are inbuilt in their nature, pacifying.
I was too little to talk to him about why he was doing what he was doing. My mother found some of his writings a while ago, and for me it was like meeting a familiar stranger. He wrote about the importance of peace, co-operation, globalism, and socialism in its purest form. He wrote against greed, hubris, and intolerance. He wrote most vehemently against violence, in particular about war’s intrinsic evil, the slaughter of countless, voiceless innocents. I read his stuff and I was disappointed. I thought him weak and self-deluded. To me, it explained what I thought of as his capitulating tolerance; I never saw him stand up for himself or those around him, and he needed to. There was a lot in his life he ought to have taken a stance against; if not for himself, to protect his dependants*. What I failed to realise what that he was standing up for something, but that something was too large for me to encompass and accept. He wasn’t giving up; he was standing fast, which meant sometimes making a sacrifice. What I forgot, ultimately, is that he fought in two world wars, both times against his will, and both times for the wrong side and/or the wrong reasons. And yes, those were probably formative experiences.
I cannot contemplate a world without othering. I grew up with it. I faced it at home, in the streets, at school, and at work. I know the kind of behaviours it enables people to engage in, and I also know that I’ve not seen a fraction of it. I visited Chile when I was 18 and spoke to people about the regime, the tortures and disappearances… I haven’t scratched the surface of what humans can do when they flick that switch in their heads that lets them feel others’ shared humanity. I know what I can do, though; I know how it affects my priorities and affordances. I have been pushed to flick that switch so many times – am I facing someone that sees me as a person, or an object? flick, flick – that I now can flick it at will. I have also done it enough times that I know that it doesn’t turn me into a monster, although it gives me permission to do monstrous things. I have met the beast. We get along.
I thought I was the stronger one, because I could both face reality and adequately react to it. Actually, I’d completely missed the point. What my grandfather was doing was fighting against othering itself. He was fighting against those pulsions that divide us from other humans. It might be pie in the sky, but his fight was just bigger than mine, and in order to fight it he had to forsake a lot of the weapons I habitually resort to. You can’t fight fire with fire, if you’re looking to eliminate fire per se, rather than a specific flame.
If need is the root cause of conflict, othering is the root cause of evil.
*”Your dependants are those you protect. You protect them because they’re your dependants.” It just goes around in circles, and is one of the closest things I have to a belief.