Some years ago I was walking with a friend in San Francisco when we passed a group of teenagers. One of the boys shouted “I hope you both die of AIDS disease!” I looked into his face and saw pure hatred in his eyes. I realized that he wasn’t seeing me at all, but a construction of his own mind. To him, because my friend and I weren’t the same as him and his friends, we were less than human, unworthy of respect, and deserved to be attacked merely because we existed. He had “otherized” us.
Neuropsychological research is demonstrating that otherizing is an innate and universal human capacity. As soon as we place people outside of the circle of “us” the brain automatically begins to devalue them and to justify bad treatment of them. But why? Since otherizing lies at the root of virtually all of humanity’s most intractable problems – racism, sexism, homophobia, militant nationalism, religious bigotry, etc., we’d obviously be better off without it. So how did it ever arise in the first place? Anthropology offers some important insights into this question. For several million years, until the advent of agriculture, our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer tribes which typically had fewer than 150 members. They were threatened by predators, starvation, and disease, and had to compete with other tribes for scarce resources. In these harsh conditions, those who cooperated with others in their tribe typically lived longer and had more offspring, so natural selection favored the evolution of love, cooperation, empathy, loyalty, and fairness within tribes. But those same evolutionary pressures also favored ruthless aggression toward members of competing tribes. Cooperation and aggression evolved synergistically: tribes which were more cooperative were also more successfully aggressive, and aggression toward other tribes demanded cooperation within tribes. Hence the strange duality in human nature: we’re capable of deep love and inspiring acts of self-sacrifice; but we’re also capable of limitless cruelty. Tribalism is alive and well in the structures of our brains.
But while the capacity for otherizing is deeply ingrained, it’s also true that the more lately evolved structures of the brain can alter the behavior of the more primitive structures. Or, more simply, our unique capacities for self-awareness, self-reflection, and deliberate intention give us a unique capacity for freedom of action.
One thing we can do to reign in our own otherizing is not to make the common and naïve mistake of “otherizing the otherizers.” It’s easy to point the finger at homophobes and racists, but it takes rare humility to see in ourselves what we condemn in others. Anytime you feel self-righteousness arising when you think about any other group or individual, no matter how wrong, hateful, ignorant, etc., they are, suspect that your own capacity to otherize has been triggered. It can be very helpful to form the intention to be on the alert for those situations in which you are inclined to devalue other people. Some of these may be so automatic or seem so trivial that you can easily overlook them. For instance, I’ve noticed that when I’m driving, I sometimes otherize pedestrians who slow me down at intersections, and when I’m walking I sometimes otherize drivers who are impatient with pedestrians.
When we become aware that we are otherizing a person or a group, it can help to remember these words from Longfellow: “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” When we otherize we turn off the neural pathways mediating compassion and empathy. That may be why, if you try to incline your mind toward empathy for a despised other, you may be aware of tremendous resistance, sometimes rationalized by thoughts about how they don’t deserve it, or by the strange belief that to feel empathy for bad people somehow allows them to get away with something. But if you can see the humanity in your enemy, the intensity of otherizing automatically begins to diminish. This has nothing to do with excusing bad behavior or condoning injustice: we can strongly condemn cruel actions while simultaneously remembering the humanity of the actor. Cultivating the habit of seeing “bad actors” as also “us” takes patience, but it can be done.
We can also derive benefit by doing spiritual practices, such as Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, which are designed to strengthen the capacities for compassion and forgiveness. It is ironic that so many of us cling so tenaciously to our habit of otherizing, because the more we strengthen these positive capacities, the happier we tend to be. That’s because all of the emotions connected with otherizing – contempt, hatred, vengefulness, fear, etc. – are painful, while those connected with empathy and compassion are soothing, peaceful, and even joyful. In his book Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson tells the story of “…a Native American elder who was asked how she had become so wise, so happy, and so respected. She answered: ‘In my heart there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.'”