The Road Less Traveled: Otherness in Divisive Times

This may be the most controversial and difficult article I have published yet. I have found myself writing and re-writing for over two weeks now. What I am concerned about is the increasing divisiveness we are experiencing in our society and what, if anything we might be able to do to “flatten that curve.” As I write, I am also quite overwhelmed by the complexities involved when dealing with these issues. So . . . deep breath . . . here goes.

The Idea of “Otherness”

In psychological research and practice, it has become increasingly important to understand and value the notion of otherness. This is one of those times when contemporary research illustrates the wisdom contained in Scripture. The concept of managing otherness is essential for surviving in this world populated by a kaleidoscope of ever-changing differences between individuals and across societies. Let me share two quotes, the first from Jesus and the second from psychoanalytic researcher Jessica Benjamin:

“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31b, NIV).

“. . . [T]he term surrender refers to a certain letting go of the self, and thus also implies the ability to take in the other’s point of view or reality. Thus, surrender refers us to recognition — being able to sustain connectedness to the other’s mind while accepting his separateness and difference. Surrender implies freedom from any intent to control or coerce” (Benjamin, J. (2004) Beyond Doer and Done To: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73(1):8).

Both Jesus and Benjamin address the age-old problem of how to treat those different from us. After all, the “other” historically has been experienced as inherently dangerous and threatening. Societies across time have protected themselves from the other, and often for good reasons, especially if the other was bent on waging war. It seems all too natural to view the other with suspicion at best or hatred at worst. Certainly, there are times when the other does pose an absolute threat and we are right to protect ourselves. I have written previously about the dangers of parental abuse of children and spousal abuse of all kinds. What I want to address today, however, is how we may attempt to close the distance between people with different perspectives; how to manage otherness that is not existentially threatening. Benjamin talks about a type of surrender that will allow us not to jettison our own ideas or viewpoints, but will empower us to listen to the other with open ears: “to take in the other’s point of view or reality.” What we surrender is not our perspective, but our need to coerce the other.

The Tendency to Destroy or Devalue the Other

Many years ago I was talking with a few Christian therapists. Two of them were discussing a patient with some frustration and then concluded, “Well, he’s just a narcissist.” End of discussion. The irony is that the complaint about many “narcissists” is that they lack empathy and may often write off or disregard the other if the other does not please them. And in that one moment, these therapists were doing just that. In one fell swoop the patient’s humanity was erased: he became sub-human, a “narcissist.” These were Christian therapists who should have known better, but because of the stress of their work, they were unable to see not only the humanity in the Other; they were unable to see the Other in themselves.

What does it look like to love our neighbor as ourselves? I know what we hope for when we are the neighbor or the other. In interpersonal and societal relationships, at the very least, we would hope for a fair hearing, to feel as though the other is making a good-faith effort to understand what we are saying and why we are saying it. Unfortunately — and it appears increasingly — it seems to be the rare person who will extend the same courtesy to the other. Many are quick to find the point of disagreement and then they cannot wait to set the other person straight. Without realizing it, many may find themselves treating others with an arrogance that assumes that they only possess the truth, that the other, of course, is wrong or ignorant (or maybe evil). How our world longs for men and women to walk through the world with humility! Talk about reducing our “footprint” on the world!

For decades, psychologists have discussed the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency most have to believe that the mistakes made by others are caused by their character, but that our mistakes come from difficult situations. In other words, you are flawed but I am stressed. Most people give themselves a pass while issuing judgments on the other.

I have wondered if we might play a bit with the admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves, turning it around: what if we loved ourselves as we love our neighbors? What might we see in ourselves that we currently cannot see? As I have been preparing this article, I have found it quite easy to remember situations in which I felt like the “Other” who was discarded or not understood. And I have not wanted to acknowledge that I have not always embraced the Other as myself, times when I closed my mind or hardened my heart.

For over twenty years, I have lived in the worlds of academia, psychology, and psychoanalysis, and I can personally attest to the fact that there does indeed exist an orthodoxy outside of which members walk at their own peril. And there seems to be at times an inability inside these worlds to value the other, the ones not in power positions or places of influences. This is one of the reasons so many despise the “elite” who seem unable to hear “ordinary” people with their ordinary wisdom, or even fellow professionals with a different perspective. Perhaps in your world, you have experienced something similar. What we have here is a destructive form of tribalism: the elite despise the ordinary and the ordinary despite the elite.

Otherness and Intimate Relationships

Briefly, I would like to suggest just two applications of this notion of otherness: intimate relationships and societal discourse. Certainly I have far more experience with the former than the latter, so I’ll begin there. Over the course of my professional life, first as pastor, then as psychologist, I can state with confidence that those marriages and relationships that strive for mutuality, one that enables them to want to listen to and understand the other’s perspective, are far more likely to thrive than those in which one or both partners insist that the other must be “fixed.” I must confess, at this point in my career, when I hear one member of a couple admit no responsibility for the state of the relationship while laying the blame solely at the feet of the other, I sigh . . . a very deep sigh.

But, physical abuse and infidelity notwithstanding, when a partner holds on to an offense for years and years with no desire to forgive or understand or empathize, both partners live in their own private version of hell. One of my pastors used to say, “Whenever you’re going through hell, keep going!” It is a painful enough place to visit, but to choose to live there when you have options is . . . well, you fill in the word.

“Love others as well as you love yourself” (Mark 12:31, The Message). In light of Benjamin’s statement, this means to try to understand and empathize and see the world from the other point of view. Look for the “third,” not to destroy yourself and embrace the other, not to embrace yourself and destroy the other, but to embrace both yourself and the other. To paraphrase Scott Peck, the “third” is “the road less traveled.” I realize for those who have endured relational trauma, this idea may seem aspirational at best. But better aspirational than not at all.

Otherness in Society

Secondly, as much as it pains me to wade into these waters, I will do so, carefully. I will begin by paraphrasing Dr. Jordan Peterson, a brilliant Canadian psychologist whose YouTube videos, podcasts, speaking tours, and books have brought his ideas to the minds of millions. He discusses the need for both conservatives and liberals in our world, especially in regard to business. Utilizing the “Big Five” personality traits, Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness, Dr. Peterson tested self-identified Conservatives and Liberals. He discovered that each brings important strengths to the table: by and large, conservatives tend to score high in conscientiousness, often helping them manage organizations well, while liberals tend to score high in openness, enabling them to notice issues that may be neglected. He maintains that when we are able to listen to the other, despite the political label, we are as a society richer for it. (See Bill Conerly’s “Jordan Peterson’s Lessons for Business Leaders: You Need Both Liberals and Conservatives,”Forbes, Mar. 1, 2018).

What is missing in our national conversation, really missing, is the willingness to hear the other. What is worse, anyone who tries to work across the aisle, to listen to the other, risks being blackballed by the true believers. Since the early days of COVID-19, I have made it a habit of listening to the daily White House press conferences. I find that they help me understand and keep up with the latest developments regarding the virus, while likely helping manage some of my own angst about the whole situation. What I frequently notice is that the following day, I will come across articles “reporting” on what had happened at the previous day’s conference. I have asked myself, “Was that reporter watching the same press conference as me?” I become very aware of the other-ness that exists in that moment.

During these conferences, I (like many) feel the contention between the President and the reporters. We all notice the “sides.” Whose side are you on? That seems to be what is most important. Let’s see how we can twist what the other says to demonize them and show ourselves to be righteous and noble. There is no Third! Only two sides: My Righteous Side and Your Incompetent, Evil Side. Pity the soul who attempts to listen to the valid concerns of both sides. Because it is about Sides! Don’t you dare try to hear the Other Side’s perspective. That is grounds for excommunication or belittling. After all, it’s not the virus we are fighting, at least not primarily; it’s the Other Side. How sad! How unnecessary. What is so painful to me, when I am honest with myself, is that my heart can also be callous and closed toward the other in such moments.

The Road Less Traveled

Over the past few years I have noticed people lining up politically, wearing armor, honing weapons. But when I talk with men and women in the safety of my office, I am able to see the vulnerabilities beneath the entrenched positions. Some who have been bullied or abused in their past tell me that our president triggers those same feelings within them of when they were bullied. I can see that. Some who have felt protected by a strong parent or leader tell me that our president makes them feel safe because he is so strong. I can see that too. Which side, in the intimate setting of a therapist’s office, is wrong? Or right, for that matter? It just is. My hope would be that over time each might feel less reactive so that they might be able to hear the other. Entrenchment and closed-minded posturing is not the mature state to which we should aspire as human beings, after all.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Try to take in the other’s point of view. This is the pathway out of hatred and hell. This is the Third. This is the road less traveled.