For The Someday Book

Unconscious Othering

Posted on: January 25, 2013

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

President Obama delivers his second inaugural address. (Photo from slate.com)

In the days since President Obama’s second inaugural, the critics have reached consensus that his speech was a forthright defense of a liberal, progressive agenda. He spoke up for the values of inclusion and equality, government programs to help the poor, and the movement of justice as drawing wider the circle of democracy. He named climate change, marriage equality, health care, equal pay and the end of “perpetual war” as among his second term priorities. It was a laundry list of passionate causes for progressives like me .

For the first time in more than a decade we heard a national politician apart from Ted Kennedy make a public case for these values. My heart soared at the trinitarian invocation of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” three benchmarks in the struggle for equality for women, African-Americans and GLBT people. I am grateful to the president for making the case for a progressive agenda in the face of a reactionary right-wing party, and I pray that his work giving voice to these concerns will translate into action, legislation and real impact in our nation.

This critical analysis of the president’s words is not intended to denigrate his progressiveness as “not good enough,” as measured by some ideal standard. It is not a plea for political correctness. Instead, it is an argument that language matters in the struggle for justice and equality, and an attempt to use the president’s speech to demonstrate how language can include and exclude in the most subtle ways.

Just as there were moments in his speech that made me feel like at last my worldview had a voice in the political arena, there were also moments that left me feeling marginalized and set apart as “other.” Ironically, these were often the moments designed to be inclusive. In these phrases, the president’s words exemplified a common pattern I call “unconscious Othering.” Unconscious Othering happens when attempts to promote equality for historically oppressed groups actually reinscribe their marginality.

Here is the example that set me on edge in the speech:

For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

The president demonstrated his support for equal pay for women and equal marriage for GLBT people–two issues very close to my heart. However, the way he phrased his commitment made me feel sidelined instead of included. Why?

First, the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters.” This rhetoric appeals to men, inviting them to support women’s equality based on their love for the women closest to them, their wives, mothers and daughters. However, in making that appeal to men, women get reduced to their roles as wives, mothers and daughters–shutting off the fullness of our lives as a professionals, creators, agents and full persons outside our place in the family.  Men are people first; husbands, fathers and sons secondarily. Women are wives, mothers and daughters first; maybe after that women can also be something else. Women who are not wives and mothers cease to matter outside of a perpetually juvenile status as daughters.

Second, the use of pronouns. The president says “our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” The pronouns “our” and “their” create a dynamic of “us” and “them.” “Our wives, our mothers and daughters”  and “their efforts” imply that the “our” is male, and women are “they.” Women may deserve equal pay, but do not simply belong to the “us” that delivers it. GLBT people may deserve equal marriage, they may even be elevated to treasured status as sisters and brothers, but they are still not part of “us.”

Quite unconsciously, the president’s words on equality have reinforced the idea that women and GLBT people are Other, different, outside the norm of “us.”

A look at "we the people." (Photo from the Union Leader)

A look at “we the people.” (Photo from the Union Leader)

Here is another example:

We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

If “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice,” then the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the victims of prejudice are not a part of “us.” They are Others, for whom we must care and provide, but they do not belong to “we, the people.” It is subtle, but this unconscious Othering, even in the name of promoting equality and justice, serves to reinforce existing distinctions and their accompanying discrimination.

The president’s own place as a member of a historically oppressed group added an intriguing dynamic to these remarks. When the president says “we,” he includes himself and all other African-American men in the “us” instead of the “them.” That is a huge step forward, and not to be taken lightly. I was moved to consider the great strides and sacrifices that made it possible for an African-American man to lay claim to the power of that “we.” Yet I also recognize that he could also have claimed the “we” for more of us.

How could the president’s words have done that? Here’s are some sample rewrites.

For our journey is not complete until men and women both earn a living equal to their efforts.

For our journey is not complete until our daughters have the same opportunity as our sons to earn a living equal to their efforts.

Our journey is not complete until the love between a man and a woman, between two women or two men is treated equally under the law…

Our journey is not complete until, gay or straight, our relationships are recognized equally under the law…

We must be a source of hope to one another, when we are poor, or sick, or marginalized, or the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes:  tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

In the above rewrites, the “we” includes those groups awaiting justice, rather than demanding equality while still drawing the “we” in such a way that they are not a part of it.

This unconscious Othering happens all the time. Its subtle ways of reinforcing privilege can easily go unnoticed. The president’s speech offered such a clear example that I wanted to use it as a chance to illustrate the problem, especially since it came in the context of attempts to be inclusive, not tokenism or attempts to exclude.

Can you think of further examples of unconscious Othering? How can we think more critically about our use of pronouns, and the lines of “us” and “them” we subtly draw in our speech?

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6 Responses to "Unconscious Othering"

Wow – thanks for this insight, Jennifer. I think you should send this, somehow, to the President. I think he would appreciate it! I know I do, and vow to pay careful attention as I choose the words with which I will address the congregation I serve. Again – thanks!

It seems to me that, from your perspective, no distinctions exist in the world. But distinctions do exist in the world. Some people are men. Some people are women. Some people are poor. Some people are rich. The President happens to be a man and happens to be rich. If he were to pretend to be poor and pretend to be a woman (rhetorically, of course) then we would rightly accuse him of pandering, or of hypocrisy.

You and I and he are correct and behave in a moral fashion when we insist on equal opportunity and equal respect for all persons regardless of these classifications. But I fail to see why we should take offense when a pronoun recognizes distinctions that do in fact exist in the world. Personally, I believe that if you take offense to this “Othering”, it is not the President disempowering you, but that you are disempowering yourself. It is not he doing the unconscious othering, but you.

I really appreciate this insightful post–you’ve exactly named the thing that makes me uncomfortable: when people of privilege (and I am one) unconsciously advance paternalism when trying to pursue the values we hold dear…as if we’re the ones who can confer value on others.

I very much appreciate your post. I can see how the inaugural speech could be read and heard as othering. As I listened, though, I felt the “our” was inclusive, rather than possessive. I heard and felt “our” as rhetorically equivalent to “those *among us* who…,” rather than “those people over there.” Perhaps this is the idealist in me. Perhaps it is the privilege that has often (but not always) placed me in the “we” and not the “they.” I am grateful that both readings can co-exist, that we can discuss these things in thoughtful ways, and long for a time when the beloved community can be realized.

I think that the “our” is meant to imply relationship, something that often goes missing when we work to make language “inclusive.” As someone who was raised to speak in formal manner, which I now see as sterile and cold, I value relational language.

I heard “our” to be inclusive of all US Americans. I was thrilled beyond ecstatic to hear the three S phrase….that alone made the whole day for me.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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