Oddest conversation I had at VioDy. Terry Trahan was trying to explain how treating people as if they’re non-people can facilitate violence – it may not cause it all by itself (though sometimes it can do that, too), but it definitely makes it more likely. By othering others, you make it more likely that they’re going to other you right back. Once you’ve been othered, it’s easier for them to treat you solely as a resource. In the wrong place or at the wrong time, bad juju can ensue.
[Storytime: I narrowly avoided an acquaintance of mine getting assaulted by a homeless man a few years back in London. The homeless man was, very politely, asking for spare change. I said something along the lines of “sorry no can do.” My friend completely blanked the guy out. It was literally as if he couldn’t see or hear him. So the guy got louder. Still nothing. So he got increasingly agitated. Nada. He started charging towards us, and I ended up defusing the situation by telling him that my friend was autistic and couldn’t help it. He calmed right down, told me that I was ‘a good girl,’ and went away. I swear that even through all that my friend literally did not see that he was in a conflict, because he couldn’t see the person he was in a conflict with.]
I don’t see how this concept can be hard to grasp. Othering people can take practice. It’s often easier to other people back. For me, it’s actually quite hard to not other people who’re treating me like an alien life form, or a thing, but maybe it’s because I don’t try. The VioDy guy, however, apparently just couldn’t get it. He was fixated on the idea that by treating someone as a non-person you are insulting them, and then they’ll feel compelled to have to take revenge upon you. He apparently couldn’t conceive of the sheer impersonality behind certain types of interactions.
I have some working theories about this, which are probably bogus because I’m hugely biased. It is possible that the guy was such a humanitarian that he couldn’t access a head space where people are regarded as no more than the sum total of the resources they represent, and whether you decide to befriend, ignore, or exploit them will be based solely on a risk-benefit analysis. It could be that he was so invested in his social relationships with everybody, however temporary their contact may be, that he couldn’t conceive of being unable to create that kind of connection. Looking at the way the guy behaved around me, however, I’m disinclined to buy either explanation.
I wonder if the guy was genuinely incapable of accepting that some people may regard him as insignificant. If you firmly believe yourself to be the centre of the universe, it must be hard to comprehend that to some people you are a non-entity; that you can neither compliment them nor insult them, because you’re just not relevant enough. If you think yourself smarter than anyone else, able to manipulate whatever social situation you find yourself into, it must be intolerable to consider that none of your tools are relevant. If you think that you’re the only real person, surrounded by puppets provided as your backdrop and for your entertainment, it must be inconceivable that these may turn out to just not care about you.
I don’t know the truth behind this particular case and I shall never know it, because I’m not going to dedicate any kind of time to getting to know the guy better. I’m going to keep an eye out for this kind of thing, though. Is it possible that you get a superficially similar response to othering through an excess of humanitarianism and narcissism? I’d find that interesting.