In a recent article for the New Republic, Nell Irvin Painter, a retired Princeton historian whose work focuses largely on race, discussed “othering” – a concept that she explained with reference to Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 story “The Artificial Nigger”:
A white man, Mr. Head, and his grandson Nelson visit Atlanta for the day. Mr. Head, a poor and sad old man, undertakes to tutor Nelson in racial hierarchy. On the train to the city, a prosperous black man passes by. At first, Nelson sees “a man.” Then, under Mr. Head’s questioning, “a fat man…an old man.” These are wrong answers. Nelson must be educated. Mr. Head corrects him: “That was a nigger.” Nelson must undergo the process of unseeing a well-dressed man and reseeing a “nigger,” to understand the man as Other and himself and his uncle as people who belong to society.
This episode in O'Connor's story does indeed capture a lamentable fact of mid twentieth-century life: back then, many Americans belonging to certain groups did view members of certain other groups primarily, or even exclusively, as members of those groups, and as their inferiors. Fortunately, this type of reflexive prejudice receded dramatically in the decades after O'Connor wrote her story. In no country in human history, in fact, have members of such a wide range of ethnic and religious groups succeeded in truly becoming a single people, viewing one another not as parts of an “Other” but as fellow and equal citizens – and as friends – as was the case in late twentieth-century America.
Yet leftist ideologues in the media, academy, and politics would have us believe otherwise. For decades now, high-school students – and even children in grade school – have been taught that America, far from being the land of opportunity, is the land of bigotry. Their teachers have told them all about America's legacy of slavery – but have omitted to explain that until a few generations ago, slavery existed in every human society, that it still exists now (mostly in the Muslim world), and that what makes America distinctive, when it comes to this subject, is not the fact that white Americans once owned black slaves but the fact that white Americans fought our nation's bloodiest war to liberate blacks from bondage.
In the same way, kids have been taught that the treatment of American Indians by white Europeans was uniquely evil. Almost invariably, the pre-Columbian Americas are depicted in schools and college history courses as a veritable Eden, where natives lived in harmony with nature and one another; European explorers and settlers, meanwhile, are depicted as violent brutes who destroyed this precious harmony. What students aren't told about are the downsides of that purported Eden – from bloodthirsty wars between Indian tribes to Aztec rituals involving human sacrifice and the burning alive of children.
What has happened? Briefly put, in the schools, colleges, media, and other milieux dominated by the left, the kind of ugly “othering” perpetrated by Mr. Head has been flipped 180 degrees. Today, it's the “Other,” the traditional “them,” that is privileged and idealized, while the traditional “us” – America, the West, anyone of European heritage – is vilified. Terms like “white supremacy” and “diversity” have become unmoored from all meaning, except for the fact that the former denotes something that we are meant to ritually denounce as bad and the latter denotes something that we are meant to praise.
Over the decades, the despised “us” has been expanded to include such groups as Jews and Americans of East Asian background. These groups have been shifted from the category of “them” into the category of “us” precisely because their members have tended to embrace the American way of life, have striven to assimilate, and have, by and large, been successful and prosperous. They start businesses and work hard to get by; they obey the law; they don't burden the welfare system; their kids, after speaking English for just a couple of years, win spelling bees. This shift means that people on the left can now, with impunity, express anti-Semitic sentiments and support Asian quotas in college admissions.
But of course the ultimate “us,” under the present dispensation, are straight white males. If you're straight and white and male, you really can't win in the era of “the Other.” On the one hand, if you dare to point out any cultural difference, however minor, between yourself and a member of some other group, you can be accused of drawing pernicious, hateful distinctions between “us” and “them”; on the other hand, if you celebrate America as a “melting pot” – e pluribus unum – you can be accused of erasing “the Other,” of denying his or her right to maintain a distinctive identity. Even if you hold the lowliest job, you'll be regarded as basking in white male privilege, while even some of the most powerful people in America will be seen as victims because they belong to traditionally “othered” groups.
This kind of thinking was already well established by 9/11. While some of us attributed the terrorist attacks to jihadist ideology, many Americans blamed them on “othering.” Watching the Twin Towers fall on live television, they asked, in all seriousness: “What have we done to cause this?” The perpetrators, they assumed, must have been driven to commit their atrocities by Western acts of “othering” directed at Muslims. In a 2015 commentary, Kate Sullivan of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute actually made the explicit argument that “othering” of Muslims was the reason for the rapid growth of ISIS.
Born around the time of 9/11, countless high-school and college students today have fully internalized the mentality I describe, judging fellow human beings not by the content of their character but by the extent to which they can or cannot be seen as “the Other.” It is for this reason that millions of Americans share what would otherwise seem a thoroughly irrational obsession with – and even veneration of – such seemingly disparate groups as illegal immigrants, transsexuals, and Muslims.
It's only human to feel a degree of sympathy for wretchedly poor people who sneak across the Mexican border, or for desperately confused people who think they were born in the wrong body. But it's sheer madness to turn them into heroes and to suggest, as Nancy Pelosi does in the case of illegal immigrants, that they “embody the best of our nation.” It's certainly deeply twisted to care less about Kate Steinle than about her illegal-immigrant killer. Or to cheer a female-to-male transsexual who won a women's athletic event thanks to massive testosterone injections.
Of these three groups, it's Muslims whose idealization is the most ridiculous. It's reasonable, of course, to feel sorry for some Muslims – for women, that is, who are subjected to female genital mutilation and forced marriage; for gays who must hide their identities for fear of being victims of honor killing; for secret apostates who, knowing that the prescribed penalty for apostasy is death, dare not publicly reject their faith.
But these kinds of Muslims aren't the ones to whom we're supposed to feel attached. Why? Because these kinds of Muslims are seen as being – or trying to be – too much like “us.” The more such Muslims evince admiration for Western freedoms or contempt for the hijab, the less compassion we're supposed to have for them. No, the Muslims whom we're encouraged to admire are the ones who are the most “Other” – namely, those, like Linda Sarsour, who preach jihad and advocate sharia.
In the same way, women or blacks or gays who refuse to be reduced to mere group members, and who insist on being viewed as individuals, are smeared as traitors to their groups – for their very existence strikes at the core of the whole shebang. Meanwhile, a white woman who “identifies” as black and a U.S. Senator who claims American Indian ancestry (but refuses to take a DNA test) are idolized because their eagerness to profess “Other” identities, however absurd, reaffirms the notion that such identities are intrinsically estimable.
A readiness to embrace “the Other” at its worst – and to despise those of “us” who voice legitimate concern about “the Other” at its worst – leads Western European governments to reward returning ISIS fighters while imprisoning critics of Islam. So much as mention the authentic horror of Islamic ideology on American college campuses and you will be tagged as the lowest sort of bigot; meanwhile, the same colleges offer courses on the utterly imaginary horrors of “white privilege” and “toxic masculinity,” as if the last sixty-seven years of affirmation action were a fantasy and the punishment of boys for not being girls were not long since institutionalized.
Many white Americans voted for Barack Obama largely because they believed a black president would put an end to this corrosive victim-group nonsense once and for all and usher in a post-racial America. Instead, he made everything worse, putting group identity front and center, drawing attention to (exceedingly rare) white-on-black crimes while tuning out inner-city gang violence, saying things like “If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon [Martin],” and reinforcing at every turn the idea of America as a land of bigotry. All this counterproductive mischief made possible the election of Donald J. Trump, who, more explicitly than any professional politician would ever dare, rejected the whole “us” and “them” paradigm and dismissed the reverence for “the Other” with the disdain it deserved.
Of course, it's the left's fixation on “the Other” that fuels its intense, even insane hatred for Trump – a president who, more than any other in living memory, insists on his obligation to prioritize the well-being of Americans over that of foreigners; recognizes, indeed, his duty to protect Americans from foreigners; and commends worthy individual members of minority groups without feeling obliged to congratulate them for belonging to those groups. This failure to bend his knee to “the Other” is enough, in the eyes of many people, to qualify him as a world-class racist, sexist, and Islamophobe. At the same time, many of these very same people are quick to defend genuine bigots like the virulent anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
In short, a bleak picture. Needless to say, the one bright spot on the canvas is the election of Trump to the presidency of the United States. That election showed that tens of millions of voters are sick of the bizarre fixation on group identity that has become a central feature of contemporary American life – and gave us reason to hope that we may yet put this dangerous lunacy behind us.