Othering: A Psychoanalytic understanding of prejudice and hatred

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Every day we are confronted with stories of discrimination, oppression, prejudice and even hatred, directed at certain groups of people. In a society like the UK, this might include people of colour, sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ), people with disabilities, immigrants, Jews, Muslims. The list goes on. As Fakhry Davids, a London psychoanalyst states in the opening line of his book, Internal Racism: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Race and Difference (2011), “to be black in a white world is an agony” (p.1). One might say similarly for LGBTQ people living in a straight world, people with disabilities living in an ableist world, and so on.

Within the discipline of social psychology, prejudice is sometimes investigated in terms of individual personality factors. But because prejudice is also a group phenomenon, it has often been investigated and understood in terms of inter-group processes. We partly formulate a sense of identity on the basis of the social group we perceive ourselves as belonging to. Prejudice is understood as a cognitive process, involving attitudes, thoughts, and perceptions, that help to demarcate a group (which includes the self) identity between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In moments of stress and strife, we tend to come together as ‘us’ to defend our resources against ‘them’. This can be illustrated, for example, in the depictions of immigrants who “come to take our jobs”.

Experiments in social psychology have helped us understand how a group identity may be formed by making comparisons between an ‘us’ group and a ‘them’ group, and how we might have an automatic tendency to want to view ourselves and the ‘us’ group in a favourable light, compared to ‘them’, who are perceived less favourably. However, this does not fully encapsulate the strength of feeling, often irrational, such as fear and hatred, that are so often displayed in explicit prejudices. History is littered with accounts of extreme hatred directed at certain groups of people, who are persecuted, abused and even murdered. For example, the enslavement of African men and women between the 16th and 19th centuries, the systematic murder of Jews during the holocaust in Nazi Germany, the euthanasia of people with disabilities, and numerous other atrocities and genocides.

We may comfort ourselves today that these are matters of the past, but we know of genocides happening in present times. More commonly, our newspapers and media are regularly reporting on various accounts of hate crimes, such as two women on a London bus attacked for being lesbian (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-48555889), or attacks on synagogues and mosques. Such incidences, not entirely rare, involve irrational feelings of disgust, fear and hatred. While such incidences might be understood by most as extreme, we have also come to understand everyday incidences of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism through what have been termed ‘microaggressions’. These are verbal slights and derogatory remarks that are flung, often unthinkingly, at someone who one perceives as different. Such as questioning a person with a disability in a nightclub, “What are you doing here?”; or commenting on some behaviours as being “so gay!”; or interrogating a British or American person of colour “where are you from?”. They may be defended as ‘innocent’ comments, but such comments are based on an observation of otherness. Call the person out on such a comment and one often sees the underlying aggression coming out.

How might we understand this hatred, consciously or unconsciously expressed? A useful concept from the social sciences has been the notion of ‘othering’. ‘Othering’[i] refers to the process whereby individuals or groups of people attribute negative characteristics to other individuals or groups of people, in a way that sets them apart as representing that which is opposite to them. In ‘othering’ it is not only that certain peoples are perceived as different and stereotyped as having negative qualities and traits, but rather are perceived as totally “other”; as the opposite of that which is seen to be acceptable and ‘normal’, and, as a result, responded to with feelings of fear, disgust and even hatred.

The ‘other’, is regarded as an outsider to the dominant group, and often perceived as inferior and subordinate to the dominant group. Historically, Europeans viewed the ‘other’ as the men and women of different cultures, for example, the so-called ‘Orientals’ who were represented as, at best, exotic, but most typically as uncivilised, inferior and subordinate. The feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir, in her book The Second Sex, argued that women have historically been constructed as the ‘other’ sex, where, in a patriarchal society, women are perceived and positioned as being the opposite of men, representing that which is inferior to men. Social theorists have long argued that underlying such sexism, for example, is a hatred of women (misogyny). In other words, women were perceived (and in many ways still are) as inferior to men — women are emotional and not as rational as men, are weak and not as capable as men — and despised for it. Similarly, gay men were (are) regularly perceived as inadequate or failed men — effeminate, emotional and weak, ‘like women’ — and despised for it. Black men and women were (are) perceived as a ‘less’ than white men and women — less intelligent, less civilised, lazy — and despised for it. These are prejudiced views, not truths.

Psychosocial theorists understand the processes of othering as involving the psychoanalytic concepts of ‘splitting’ and ‘projection’; two defence mechanisms that we utilise to defend against anxiety and fear. These are typically unconscious processes. Psychologically, our experience of vulnerability, and our own destructive and aggressive urges, may create a sense of anxiety within us as powerful urges that we have no control over, that can threaten our sense of who we are. Splitting refers to a way of managing this, by creating a psychological split (as the term suggests) between that which is experienced as ‘good’, and that which is experienced as ‘bad’. In order to protect ourselves as a ‘good’ self, we may disavow the aspects of our human characteristics that we do not like. We all have the potential to be destructive and aggressive, but we repress these urges. In moments of extreme stress, or times of crisis, our destructiveness and aggression may find expression. But we go further than just disavowing it, we recognise that these urges exist in humans, as they do in animals (we are animals, after all!), so to protect ourselves further, we locate them in others; that is project them onto others — ‘it is not in me; it is in you’, and so perceive others as having the qualities that we despise and disavow in ourselves, and so they become the threatening ‘other’ that we need to protect ourselves against. While this is an individual process, it can also function as a group process. At a social level, who we project these unwanted ‘animal-like’, ‘bad’ traits on to, and what these may be, depend on the moral values and religious, cultural and political ideologies that are dominant in a particular society.

For example, when it comes to understanding racism, Frantz Fanon, the French West Indian psychiatrist, writes (in Black Skin White Masks), how racism, in its most explicit form, can be understood as white racists projecting their own “animality” onto black African men and women who are then stereotypically perceived as aggressive, and having an unrestrained sexuality, as “animal-like” and “savage”, and thus feared and hated. With homophobia, disgust and shame about our sexual bodies and its excretions, are projected onto gay men and gay sex, who are then viewed as disgusting and shameful. Or non-disabled persons may project their experience of bodily vulnerability and dependency onto people with disabilities who are then feared and despised as damaged and dependent. We shame and denigrate others so we can feel better about ourselves.

What can be done? Researchers and scholars of human behaviour have shown us that we all have prejudices, even if we do not want to admit it (I am the ‘good’ one). What is important is to be aware of our possible prejudices and emotional reactions to the others, and who we may be ‘othering’. The concept of unconscious bias in diversity training has attempted to do this. Over the decades, as we have become more aware of our prejudices, we have, generally, become a more tolerant society, with the rights of women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ individuals increasingly advocated for. However, some might say that in these times of global stress, more intolerance is emerging again. But more than being aware of our prejudices, we need to come to accept our own dual natures. We have the capacity for both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we are flawed, we are vulnerable, we have a destructive side as well as a creative potential. We see this every day in what we may term the “best” of people, as well as the “worst”. We must come to accept the ‘bad’ in us, and not live under the delusion that we are better than others.

[i] I have taken this definition of ‘Othering’ from: Rohleder, P. (2014). Othering. In T. Teo (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology. Springer: New York.

Dr Poul Rohleder is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. He is a social scientist, a writer and researcher on sexuality and mental health