The art of othering

So far, I’ve read A Writer’s Guide to Violence, Meditations on Violence and Principles-Based Instruction for Self-Defence. Each has been profound in a slightly different way but all have affirmed a central point: Violence happens hard, fast, close and with surprise.

There are implications for this truth and I’m not going to list or review them here. (I will, however, claim that everyone—especially females—would benefit from reading a bit of Rory Miller’s work.) Instead, I want to share an extract:

“When a student trains, he is focused, relatively rested, warmed up, sober, emotionally stable, having fun, and on a schedule. If ever attacked, the same student will be distracted, likely tired or injured or drunk. He will be scared or angry. He will be surprised, and will not be having fun. In short, the person that trains will not be the person in the fight.”

The contrast is between a student and a victim, and in the context of violence this contrast is significant. But what about in the context of ideas?

Supposedly, reality is that which doesn’t go away when we stop believing it. This formulation posits reality as a rather benign, passive force. The matter that resides when waves of belief recede. Another formulation of reality is possible—we can liken it to a “predator”, in Rory Miller’s terms. A force which strikes asymmetrically, from a position of irresistible advantage against an undeniable point of vulnerability.

This is, perhaps, what “enlightenment” really is: reality preying upon us. It’s not warm and fuzzy and gooey in its goodness. It is an act of violence against the self. It hits hard, fast, close and with surprise. It is unpleasant, in some cases horrifying. And, predictably, like traditional violence, the reactions to it are varied. Some absorb and fold the strike comfortably into themselves. Others avoid and try not to look at it, as if they can negate it by an act of will. And a few will be shattered by it, broken.

Reading about self-defence, I’ve realised that it’s an almost impossible thing to train for. Outside of putting yourself in the places with a high probability of violence—places with young men consuming mind altering substances, generally, or an violence-facing occupation—there is no chance of adequate preparation. But that is in the realm of the physical. In the mental, conceptual realm, I think it is a good idea to act the fool and expose oneself to violence.

However, it’s not as simple as consuming contrary viewpoints. That’s like the martial arts student entering a dojo at an agreed time in an ideal state. There needs to be something more immersive. And the thing more immersive than mere contemplation is contact with reality. Unfortunately, this is akin to many truisms and cliches. Travelling, joining groups one otherwise would avoid, going to different places via novel means, talking to holders of opposing ideas, attempting to defend positions one finds indefensible, taking risks instead of seeking comfort and familiarity.

All these things are hard in our abstracted age. And perhaps that is the key? The student of violence examines it as an abstraction. An idea. The victim of violence experiences the inapplicability of these abstractions. Violence reveals itself to the victim as concrete. Perhaps, to gain contact with reality, we need to regress our abstractions?

How the heck do we do that, though? One approach could be revealed by Miller’s comments on PTSD. He says that, in his experience, people with a strong in-group/out-group bias suffer less from things like PTSD.

Othering functions as a self-protection mechanism. If one is a victim of violence from an othered group–or a perpetrator of violence against them–then the act is factored as normal, a regular ol’ part of existence. Scroll through the history books for persecution and what do you find? Violence against certain populations is almost always preceded by propaganda campaigns whose purpose is to other the persecuted group. Before violence comes othering and after the violence the othering offers protection. Conversely, it seems that those with a no-group bias–“we are all humans”–are most likely to succumb to PTSD.

Again, this is in the physical realm. In these examples, people died. In the conceptual realm, can we use othering to help provoke violence against the self and so open the door to enlightenment? Possibly.

One way to do this is to assume masks in a deep and deliberate way. For example, imagine I want to learn more about the ills of capitalism. I can do this by becoming an avid communist. I can adopt a communist identity and seek out justification of the have-not’s vitriol against the haves.

For example, in Rory Miller’s short book, ConCom, he described two types of predators. Resource predators commit asocial violence against an other in order to obtain a valued resource. Process predators commit asocial violence against an other in order to experience pleasure. Miller also says that predators are more likely to exist at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy–they are self-actualised.

So, in line with my new communist identity, I could hypothesise that the have-not’s targeting of the haves is justified and necessary because the haves, existing at the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy, are probabilistically likely to become predators and commit violence against the have-nots.

This is but one brick in the edifice of justification. There are more. But notice how easy it is for me just to throw an idea out there. I can write the above without believing it. This is not identity adoption. It is identity entertainment.

I don’t have children, but I’m aware that part of the development process is the trying-on of identities. Teens will go through phases. They’ll attempt to become different people. Social groups, habits, attire, mannerisms, consumption–it’ll all change. As adults, we scorn this and favour entertainment over adoption. But the teens doing the phase-switching learn a lot. Contrast this with adult learning decline.

I remember Tyler Cowen talking about “quake books”–books that provoke profound worldview shifts. I also remember him saying that the discovery of quake books tails off as we age. Why is that? Surely, the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know? The shoreline of our island of knowledge increases, so surely we should be stumbling upon more beaches, coves and cliffs, not less?

Nope. As we age, identities harden and so do we. Or vice versa. I’m not sure. Regardless, the trousers of the self stay belted and never slip down to reveal the anus of uncertainty. Shame. Perhaps we should reverse that trend? I saw someone on Twitter recently talk about the newest generations ability to inhabit multiple media channels and play numerous characters across all of them. Newer generations are less inclined to other others, but they are adept at othering themselves. Maybe we too should attempt to learn the art of othering?