Us Vs. Them – Really?

Author: Nancy Wade

Humans can only process a limited amount of change in a short period of time without experiencing anxiety. It’s a natural human reaction – but how we respond to that anxiety is social. When societies experience big and rapid change, a frequent response is for people to narrowly define who qualifies as a full member of society, a process I call “Othering.” Othering is not about liking or disliking someone. It is based on the conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favoured group.

John A. Powell, Us. Vs. them: the sinister techniques of ‘Othering’ – and how to avoid them, The Guardian

A month or so ago, driving back to Boulder from a family visit in Arvada, I stopped at a new King Soopers that features large departments and a huge, elaborate layout. The number of items for sale is overwhelming; the walk is long. As I was checking out with a few items, I told the clerk how much I like the new store. “I usually stop here on my way back to Boulder,” I said. 

Her response was immediate. 

“Oh!,” she said. “You live in Boulder?” I try to never go there if I can help it. It’s 28 square miles surrounded by reality, you know. The people are weird. I just don’t understand why anyone could live there.” 

I fell silent. 

As she bagged my groceries, the clerk continued yammering on about the place I have called home for the past 17 years. Inside, I was incredulous at her remarks, but I maintained a stoic exterior because I am quite accustomed to the comments and I suspect that others who live here in our beautiful city are used to them as well. 

Now, it might be a stretch to assume that I was a victim of “othering” when listening to the clerk’s biased comments and yet it does seem sometimes that people who live in Boulder are singled out for eye-rolling and ridicule. 

I, myself, have always loved Boulder’s vibe, its ambiance, its ‘live and let live’ viewpoint and its liberal/radical politics. A family member – who shall go unnamed – visits me here only when he has to and when he does, his comments are fearful. “I can’t believe I’m in Boulder,” he will say. “Isn’t it true that this place is really liberal?” And then I allow that he is correct; Boulder is liberal. But I tell him in a conspiratorial tone that if he waits until after dark, he can leave quickly and quietly – so no one will see him — because the city limit is only about a half-mile away. 

“Othering” goes on around the world and it is far more threatening to minorities than the experience we have here in Boulder. South Americans are the “others” who attempt to cross our southern border, Muslims are the “others” who are persecuted in Europe. People of color are the “others” who are systemically dismissed and threatened by white supremacists. 

As Advent approaches, perhaps we can increase our self-awareness so that we learn not to react to change and anxiety by “othering” those who are different from us. In less than a month, we will celebrate the birth of the baby in a manger. Let us remember his simple message: that we are to love one another. 

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