The Consequences of Othering the Other

I am so often amazed at the coincidental convergence of my reading: the coming together of ideas, thoughts and ruminations. In the last few weeks three pieces of reading, a novel by Naheed Aslam (The Blind Man’s Garden) and two articles from the London Review of Books (2 June 2016), one by Naomi Klein and the other by Patrick Cockburn linked together almost as if they were planned research.

All three refer either directly or indirectly to the idea of “othering”: the notion that if you strip or minimise a person of their human desires and needs they become dehumanised while those doing the dehumanising make their needs paramount. The Australian policy on asylum seekers is an example of this. In this policy asylum seekers are referred to as commodities to be traded (by people smugglers, whom the government itself has contracted on occasion), illegals and aliens. Should they be lucky to become guests of the government they become numbers. The recent documentary, Chasing Asylum, noted that children referred to themselves not by name, but by their number.

Klein’s article Let Then Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World drown examines the impact of Othering and how that compromises not only how we respond to those Others, those living in poorer, resource-rich countries, usually in Africa and the Middle East. And let us pause for a moment: surely the phrase “usually poor, resource-rich countries” is an oxymoron? No, it isn’t; Patrick Cockburn points out in Somalia Syndrome that the wealth is held by the ruling elite and their cohorts.

Countries that depend on the sale of natural resources suffer from the notorious ‘resource curse’: the state gets paid for the sale of oil, gas or minerals and members of the political elite fight for a share of the revenues. The rest of the population either gets nothing, or benefits from an expensive patronage system through which they are given jobs.

So anyone who is unable to have a piece of the wealth is doomed to poverty and loss of rights; he or she becomes the Other.

Klein partially addresses the link between war and climate change. She quotes from The Conflict Shoreline by Eyal Weizmanand Fazel Sheik, who identify what they call the “aridity line”. This line connects areas that have an average 200 mms of rain per annum; an amount considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. What is interesting about this imaginary line is that threads its way from Somalia, through Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, Niger and Mali, and picks up in Northern Africa into Libya, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each of these countries have suffered significant drought and there has been a large rural migration into the cities. An example of this is Daraa, a Syrian town that in years prior to the civil war suffered the deepest drought on record. As result 1.5 million people were displaced, a factor, according to Klein, that contributed to the tensions that fed the civil war. Note that all the countries along the aridity line are the centre of some of the bloodiest battle-fields in modern times. They are also oil rich. Where there is oil, the West arrives to “protect” the resources (its resources). Where do most of the refugees come from?

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought. And the same capacity for dehumanising the other that justified the bombs and drones is now being trained on these migrants, casting their need for security as a threat to ours, their desperate flight as some sort of invading army. (Klein)

Interestingly, while Cockburn’s article doesn’t refer to the aridity line, he mentions all the countries through which it runs. He points out that the breakup of the Soviet Union granted hegemony to the USA and with that the brakes on stability were released. Since then the West has been able to displace leaders (eg Saddam Hussein) with little consideration for what would replace them. Out of this Islamism has grown stronger offering the dispossessed the hope of a future through Islamic State and its creation of a caliphate stretching across Western Iraq and Syria. Until the Paris attacks this was of minimal concern to the West because it affected others. (Let us remember that ISIS has killed more Muslims than Westerners but the political hype would lead us to believe that we have more to fear).

Cockburn points out that there was little difference between what replaced the displaced. Citizens were still confronted with corruption spored by greed. He quotes an anonymous civil servant speaking to the International Crisis Group: “ … the only difference between the two was that the old regime was already ‘satiated since they have been robbing us for the past thirty years. Those that accompany the American troops will be ravenous.’

This brings to mind one of the themes in Aslam’s book. The novel is about a middle class Pakistani family caught in a country where nothing is as it seems. They are caught in a conflict with the West and its presence in Afghanistan and their own government and institutions peopled by corrupt officials hiding behind the teachings of the Koran. People are traded: young men are captured initially believing that they will be fighting for a just cause but are betrayed and traded with the West who torture and degrade them while everyone gets on with the business of hypocrisy: the West fighting evil while consorting with the evil it purports to be against. Ordinary families do the best they can in the mess that follows.

It would seem that as long as we are locked into othering the Other, nothing is going to change. If we are serious about climate change and the conflict that arises from plundering the earth’s resources and the endless loop that that creates; if we are going to really address the problems faced by asylum seekers who are now making clear that their problems are ours, then we have to look to new solutions. Climate change will accelerate inequality, wars and racism unless we recognise that it can be used as a force “working for economic and social justice and against militarism” (Klein). Klein points out that the “anti-austerity people rarely talk about climate change, the climate change people rarely talk about war and occupation.”

Klein calls for “integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of unionised jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy”.

In this respect I keep wondering, but I haven’t come across any literature that helps me: are bombs and the destruction of towns and cities, the burning of oil fields, the loss of natural habitation excluded from the complex calculation of carbon emissions?

Klein’s final quote is a post by Liam Cox in response to the revving up of the flood disaster in England earlier this year to promote anti-foreigner sentiment:

I live in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, one of the worst affected areas hit by the floods. It’s shit, everything has gotten really wet. However…I’m alive. I’m safe. My family are safe. We don’t live in fear. I’m free. There are no bullets flying about. There aren’t any bombs going off. I’m not forced to flee my home and I’m not being shunned by the richest country in the world or criticised by its residents.

He concludes:

I request you to ask yourselves a very important question…Am I a decent and honourable human being? Because home isn’t just the UK, home is everywhere on this planet .

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