Otherness & “the Other”

Some of the most popular modes of critical theory utilize the concept of “the Other,” an important social-political idea prevalent today in conversations about literature, film, television and advertising.

Otherness & “The Other”

When we talk about the concept of “the Other,” we are talking about the status of an identity group.

Some examples of identity groups (also known as demographic groups) can include ethnicities and races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, nationalities, and religions.

Sometimes identity groups can be socially defined as “Other,” meaning that people belonging to that group are not seen as a true representative of society. They are outliers instead. This social status can have significant repercussions. 

Clarifying the Concept

For an illustration, let’s look at a very basic hypothetical scenario. 

Imagine an elementary school. One day during recess a few kids decide that anyone with red hair is “gross.” They say kids with red hair “don’t belong” because they are not like the rest of the kids. Red-heads have “cooties.”

At first, most of the kids ignore this idea. But after a few weeks, the notion seems to sink in. No one will play with the red-headed kids anymore. They are ostracized. When playground toys are handed out, the red-heads are pushed to the back of the line. When teams are formed, the red-heads are not chosen. They are told to go play by themselves. They are treated as lesser people or even as non-people. 

Alterity – the state of being other or different; otherness. (Oxford Languages)

The red haired children have been deemed “Other.” They are defined by the state of being other, by alterity. Based on an arbitrary feature, they have now been socially demoted and ostracized. A prejudice has emerged that pushes them to the very bottom of a social structure. 

Now imagine this phenomenon scaled up to encompass a national culture. That is how “Otherness” works. 

The Social Politics of “Otherness”

Initially, “Otherness” may seem like an empty concept. But scholars and cultural critics have pointed to some of the real-world impacts that “Otherness” can have. 

1. Otherness supports system bias, functioning as a defense of certain government actions and/or offering justifications for systemic injustice(s) such as segregationist policies and practices

2. Otherness can carry implicit valuations for a whole group of people and/or create a lack of trust, lack of confidence or fear of that group

3. Otherness intrinsically positions a group of people as fundamentally different from the majority or normal group in ways that suggest it is impossible for a “normal” person to understand the internal life of the “Other” (“They are not like us. They’re animals.” “They have no morals. They’re savages.”)


Defining “Otherness”

Scholars in critical studies have associated the concept of “the Other” with a situation of hegemony (or “cultural hegemony”). “Otherness” exists in its most powerful manifestations when it occurs within a state of hegemony.

According Britannica, hegemony is “the dominance of one group over another, often supported by legitimating norms and ideas.” In a state of hegemony, one group has power. It can use its power to explain and justify its position and authority.

What stands outside that dominant, norm-defining group may become labeled as “other.”

When a group is defined as “the other” that group may face difficulties in attaining high political office (political power), rising to positions of professional authority (economic power), and achieving fair protections under the law (social power).

“The Other” may be subjected to a variety of negative biases. When we apply feminist critical theory or postcolonial critical theory, part of what we’re doing is examining the “voice” behind these negative biases.

We are also looking at ways that “the Other” attempts to attain a voice too.

You could say that “the Other” exists only because hegemony exists. Let’s explore what this means.

Hegemony

Britannica defines hegemony this way: “Hegemony, the dominance of one group over another, often supported by legitimating norms and ideas. The term hegemony is today often used as shorthand to describe the relatively dominant position of a particular set of ideas and their associated tendency to become commonsensical and intuitive, thereby inhibiting the dissemination or even the articulation of alternative ideas.”

In short, hegemony is a societal situation wherein one group dominates. As a result, the perspectives of that group also dominate. One way of looking at things becomes the more-or-less official standard definition of the norm. 

Hegemony allows for one group’s point of view to shape a whole world view around itself then export that world view or foist it upon less powerful groups. 

This definition contains several key ideas for critical theory:

(1) legitimating norms and ideas 

(2) ideas becoming commonsensical and intuitive.

We will encounter these ideas again when we explore feminist critical theory and postcolonial critical theory.

Legitimating Norms and Ideas 

How does one group dominate another? What allows that group to maintain its social and political power?

One way to put it is to say that the group in power creates an ideology to explain its status as the dominant group.

There are many examples we can point to here. Let’s look at American society in the early 20th century.

Industrial manufacturing became a major force in the economy in the 1900s. Most of the jobs in industrial manufacturing were occupied by men. This became the status quo.

Men worked in factories, earning reasonably good wages, and women were limited to a few areas of the economy if they wanted to work.

If a woman applied for a factory job, she would most likely be turned away. It would seem abnormal for her to work in a factory because it was a “man’s job.”

This is an example of a norm in action. And in this example we can see here how social norms determine a person’s access to income.

To maintain this norm, the society at the time generated an ideology – a system of values – that explained why it was good for men to work in factories and bad for women to do so.

  • They might have said that it was human nature. Men were meant to work and women were meant to stay home. (This was not consistent with women working as teachers, but inconsistency is not usually a problem for an ideology.)
  • They might have said that it was dirty work and women were being protected from that dirtiness or protected from physical harm.
  • They might have said that women didn’t want to work those jobs.

Each of these explanations may have been repeated again and again, repeated so often that they became understood as legitimate reasons for keeping women out of a growing sector of the economy.

We can take note of the effects of this ideology. If women could not earn good wages, they would be dependent on men. This dependency reinforced the hegemony, keeping men in a position as the dominant group.

Ideas Becoming Commonsensical and Intuitive

We’ve established that we don’t have to stretch our imaginations too far to see how a dominant group can present an ideology that justifies its dominance.

We should also see from our example how that ideology can de-legitimize dissent.

Once the society has adopted the point of view that it is “natural” for men to work and for women to stay home, any picture of the world were men dominate the labor force is commonsense. Of course, that is what the world looks like. That’s the way it was meant to be. That is the nature of the world.

It’s a situation where one group is socially defined as holding a justified dominance over another – and using this dominance to maintain political power, financial power, domestic power, etc.

When the mental landscape matches the ideological landscape (as is often the case), a state of hegemony can seem perfectly correct.

But those who are kept out of power might seek to change things and look for ways to dismantle the hegemony.

Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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