Jens Silfvast, PhD, Philosophy

Philosophical reflections on othering, bordering and identities Jens Silfvast 2015-10-01

1 The varieties of “others” and “otherness”  

“Other”, “otherness” and “othering” are widely used concepts in philosophy and the human sciences. But depending on the context, they are employed in quite different meanings.                                                                                                                  Some examples in philosophy:  Theories of human ontology (Hegel is the great name in this tradition). Here The Other is conceived as the necessary counterpart of a conscious Self. The subjectivity characteristic of human beings is thought to be essentially dialogical, something that can come into being only through a process of exchanging thoughts with another human subjectivity.                                                                                                                                                                                     

Moral philosophy in the tradition of Emmanuel Levinas conceives The Other as the origin of moral demands. The Other confronts me as a “Face”, as a being who is fragile and depending on my good will, but also a being whose perspective I cannot define or control.                                                                                                                                                                     Axel Honneth´s theory of recognition, in which the others are people in one´s environment who either communicate their support to one’s identity or challenge it.

Some examples in human sciences:

 In social psychology, the notion of what might be called the projected others. The theory of social identity claims that individuals strive to maintain a positive self-conception, and typically develop an “ingroup bias”. They exaggerate the positive features of their own group and the negative features of other groups. Orientalism 2 as described by Edward Said and its counterpart Occidentalism described by Avishai Margalit could be viewed as examples of this psychological mechanism.

 The Marxian concept of alienation                                                                                                                                                    

Carl Schmitt´s political theory, in which the friend vs. enemy distinction is seen as the core element in Staatsräson (Carl Schmitt)

 René Girard´s idea of scapegoating

2 Borders and otherness               

Otherness related to state borders is something that we have seen a lot of in these days. Borders in and around Europe and strict rules for border crossing that are applied to certain categories of people have created a humanitarian catastrophe of immense dimensions.

The concept of borders can be uses in a broader sense as well. There are the visible borders that divide physical space into the territory of this or that state, into “here” and “there”. But there are also the invisible borders that divide social space into “us” and “them”. And one may even speak of intrapersonal psychological borders which separate what is, or what one wants to be “me” from the other stuff that is “not me”.

I believe that we can learn quite a lot about these invisible borders in social life by reflecting on their similarities to visible borders.

Borders are socially constructed, created by humans, maintained by humans and changed by humans. “Othering” and “bordering” are terms used by those who wish to emphasize this constructedness and dynamics, processual aspect.

The opposite – and far less credible – view is essentialism, which means maintaining that things in culture and society are in some way or other fixed once and for all so that they cannot be changed by humans. An essentialist may for instance claim that there is someting in the concept of “Germanness” that forever will make it impossible for a “Turk” to be a “German”, or something in the concept of “marriage” that excludes the possibility of same-sex-marriages.

A border is normally maintained by “us” or “them”, as a border around “our” community and the “here” which constitutes “our” territory, or as a border around “their” community and territory. How one experiences a border depends on its nature and how one is situated in relation to it. The border may be maintained from “our” side or from “their” side. We may experience it as something that prevents “us” who are “here” from reaching “there” and becoming part of “them”. Or we may experience it as something that prevents “them” who are “there” to reach “here” and become part of “us”.

A border involves some kind of border regime, rules which regulate movement across the border, for instance, how a person who has migrated to this country can become a German citizen. The border regime can aim at exclusion, keeping people away from “our” territory or community. This strategy is favoured by those insiders who view people outside as unwanted or perhaps even as in some way unfit for residency or membership. Alternatively, the aim of the border regime can be to prevent people from leaving a place or from renouncing their membership in a community. It can be a strategy used from within a community, by an elite which views the social life outside it as a threat to its power position in the community. The elite wants to prevent unreliable members from joining these hostile or dangerous others. But preventing people from leaving their current place or community can also be effected from outside, as a means of keeping undesired outsiders away.

One way of moving towards an open border is to liberalize the border regime. But even if all restrictions of movement were taken away, the border itself can still constitute an obstacle for people to exercise their freedom. In Finland many people have two homes, one in the city and one on the countryside. They can freely choose where to register themselves as residents, but only in one of their homes. One more step is required if one wishes to create an open border. It is to follow the recommendation of Ulrich Beck and abandon dichotomous social distinctions in favour of distinctions which allow the possibility that someone is simultaneously a member of “us” and “them”.

3 Symbols, hierarchies and power relations

The rationale for maintaining a border is usually a conception of a hierarchy. The border is seen to be needed in order to separate a superior “us” from inferior “others”. For instance, in the eyes of many Europeans, the southern and eastern border of EU may appear as a line separating a (relatively) decent, orderly and prosperous community from regions of cultural and economic backwardness and political instability. People who experience the border from the other side may also have some perception of a hierarchy, but perhaps with an opposite view of which side is to be regardes as the superior one. The EU border might from there appear as a line between a morally superior innocent “us” who experience the misery of being kept on the worse side of the border and an inhospitable “them” on the other side who are content with the situation.

Othering and bordering work both on the level of symbols and on the level of power relations. They lead to social categories as well as hierarchies. This creates the paradox that contesting a hierarchy (say, the discrimination of a certain group of job seekers) tends to mean that one has to use – and thereby affirm – the categorization employed by those who perform that discrimination (say, the distinction between “whites” and “non-whites” or the distinction between persons with a “native” respectively “immigrant” background).

Borders are important not only from the point of view of recognition and respect, but also from the point of view of redistribution, the need to eliminate misery and injustice. Borders typically favour some people and work to the detriment of some other people. A border is usually maintained from the inside of a community, often by some powerful group in which claims that the border and its regime are means to protect the interests of “us”, the whole community against the threat from the “others”. Some other community members may experience that the border regime in fact works against their interests. An example are the “love refugees”, Danish nationals who are forced into the otherness of exile by the strict rules of family immigration which prevent them from living in Denmark together with their loved ones.

Groups in society who have a lot of economic and political power can use borders as a means of producing exploitable others. The elite in North Korea uses the border as a means to prevent valuable labour force from leaving. The elites in EU and the USA use a legally strict but in practice far less strict border regime as a means to create a population of irregular immigrants who due to their lawless status are an easily exploitable and extremely cheap labour force.

4 Insignificant others

Finally, I wish to touch a little upon the theme of intrapersonal psychological borders. I want to cite a poem by Tomas Tranströmer, here in German translation:                                                                                                                                                Zwei Wahrheiten nähern sich einander. Eine kommt von innen, eine kommt von außen, und wo sie sich treffen, hat man eine Chance, sich selbst zu sehen.

This poem reminds me of a sentence by Charles Taylor, the philosopher who writes: “We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others want to see in us”.

Another philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, describes human beings as storytelling animals. Stories and the telling of and listening to stories are essentially involved when humans form and express their identities, whether we speak of the personal identity of individuals, of the collective identies of groups and communities or of the identities of places.

In communication, othering can occur in many forms. One example is refusing to speak to some people and only speak about them. Another example is to treat some people as nonexistent, by not only refusing to listen to them and to speak to them but whom we refuse even to speak about them. I will here focus on one particular form of communicative othering, which happens when we refuse to listen to the stories some people are telling about me or us.

Our biographically significant others are the people whom we consider worthy of listening to if they have stories about us. Their stories may or may not please us but can significantly affect the stories that we are able to tell about ourselves, or about our groups or our places.

Outside this sphere are our biographically insignificant others. People who also may have stories about us, but that we do not consider worthy of listening to. Our motive for doing so may have to do with the content of their stories (they may, for instance, be so evidently false or so boring). Or our refusal may have to do with some perceived characteristics of these storytellers themselves.

We sometimes perform acts of biographical othering, remove people from the inner sphere to the outer sphere (and keep them there). Acts of the opposite kind, allowing people into the inner sphere can be called biographical deothering.

I end with a few questions about these two operations. What happens when we close our ears or open our ears to the stories other people are telling about us? How do we perform these operations, and how are they related to the operations of social othering and deothering, and to geographical bordering and debordering processes? And most importantly, how these acts individually and together affect us, our selfhood, our identity and our moral quality as persons?


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