‘Otherizing’ a good candidate for word of the year in 2016

Published 11:16 am Tuesday, October 11, 2016


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“Otherizing” has not made it into the established dictionaries yet (and purists are no doubt rejoicing that it has not), but it appears increasingly in the parlance of pundits assessing the current political scene, and off-beat dictionaries are including it.  In a March interview with linguist Ben Zimmer, National Public Radio’s Michael Martin asks his guest whether “otherizing” could be a candidate for his list of new words for the coming year.  Zimmer, who chairs the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and is language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, responds that it “could well be a Word of the Year candidate.”

In the Martin-Zimmer exchange, it develops that other as a verb has a long history, but that its prominence has swelled in recent American politics.  As Zimmer states, “otherizing” means “treating someone as outside of a particular dominant social group or norm.”  (We should add that it could also refer to a nation, a religion, or any group of people that is  seen  as “outside the circle.”)  “Otherizing” or “othering” justifies devaluing of others and treating them disrespectfully and even violently.  Remember the genocide in Rwanda, for instance.

Where do we see “otherizing” heating up in the current political climate?  Conservative commentator S.E. Cupp on CNN uses the term to describe candidate Donald Trump’s campaign tactics toward Muslims, immigrants, and women. “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance does not speak of “otherizing,” but he suggests that millions of Appalachian working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree have felt ignored and unheard (“otherized?”).  Donald Trump sees them and hears them, they believe.

The Martin-Zimmer exchange recalls ways in which President Obama has been “otherized.”  In the current election cycle, we have been reminded again of the “birther” movement, which questioned his American citizenship.  There have been references to him as Barack Hussein Obama, in other words not one of “us.”  Former mayor Rudy Guiliani has questioned his love of his country.  The news of the past week carries an account of the efforts being made by Republican leaders Mac Brown, party chair, and Jeff Hoover, House Minority Leader, to get Republican House candidate Dan Johnson to drop out of the current race.  And what is this candidate’s offense?  In a word, egregious “otherizing,” although the word does not appear in the news stories.  Johnson, a bishop of Heart of Fire Church in Louisville and a candidate for state representative in Bullitt County, has authored racially charged posts comparing President Obama and First Lady Michelle to apes.  He labels a photo of a chimpanzee a baby picture of Obama.  (He defends this as satire.)

Johnson also calls on states to ban Islam, which he calls a criminal syndicate.  We will skip his offensive statements about Allah and Mohammed, and move to a September meeting of the Islamic Society of North America in New York in September.  Referring to calls by candidates for Muslims to be barred, to the recent killing of an imam and his associate as they walked in New York after afternoon prayers, and to the recent harassment and physical attack of Muslim women in Chicago as they walked to their car, a leader of the society referred to “normalization of bigotry.”  He could have said, “normalization of otherizing.”

“Otherizing” justifies virtually any tactic toward its object, and it should not surprise us that the objects of “otherizing” may engage in “otherizing” the “otherizer.”  Candidate Clinton, we recall, used the word “deplorables” to refer to racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic supporters of candidate Trump.  Citing the “otherizing” of the current campaign is one way to  discern why there is widespread consternation about the tenor and tone of this campaign.  “Otherizing” has been a hardy perennial in American politics, but many feel that in this blooming campaign  it has taken on kudzu proportions.  Whatever happened to “welcoming the stranger,” a central theme of the Abrahamic religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)?  Mirabai Starr, of the Huffington Post, paraphrases love of neighbor using “otherize”  when she writes, “Thou shalt not otherize is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian traditions.”

She even hypothesizes that “just about everyone everywhere believes that Ultimate Reality is a unified field,” no matter what name they use for it—God, love, etc.  Why is it then that we turn others into things and lapse into fear of the alien “other”?

“Otherizing” by name seems to have peaked these days, but the perspective and the practice that the word describes have prehistoric roots.  Neuropsychological research sees it as an innate capacity in the human species, and Jungian psychology believes that we project the unredeemed shadow side of ourselves on the feared “other.”  Anthropologists explain how it developed in hunter-gather tribes before agriculture surfaced.  Tribalism was both the way people survived and the way ruthless aggression developed toward competing tribes.  Groups (probably of less than 150) learned cooperation, love, and loyalty within a tribe to deal with all kinds of threats to their survival.  If the threats were from other tribes, a group developed an aggressive posture that could be capable of limitless cruelty.  It ceased to see the humanity of the “other” tribe.  Tribalism then is both a social bond and a fomenter of antagonism and “otherizing.”  It is another name for our “otherizing.”

The present political climate has seen a magnification of the tribalism and “otherizing” that have beset the human race for millenia.  Unchecked or unbalanced by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” elections can deteriorate into wars and governing after elections can be plunged into gridlock.  Our religious communities, our educational institutions, and our civic organizations should be teachers of inclusion and of identification with peoples that we might “otherwise” consider “otherizing.”  Sad to say, they are too often part of the problem more than the solution.  Getting “otherizing” into establishment dictionaries is no plan of mine,  but if using the word about our current political malaise has helped us identify a deplorable evil, one that implicates us all, it will have served a worthy purpose.

Eric Mount is professor emeritus of religion at Centre College.