Thursday, May 11, 2006

Otherness [II, 39]

There is a recurrent human tendency to regard groups that are identifiably other than one’s own as alien and threatening. This tendency is deeply rooted in human culture. Anthropologists report that some tribal groups use the same term for "member of the tribe" as for "human being." By implication outsiders are not fully human. The ancient Greeks referred to foreigners as "barbarians," from the expression "barbar," implying a babble that was not coherent speech.

In large, complex modern nations this tendency is played out within the society. For those who have not, or who will not, assimilate by the standards of the host society the perennial question is this. Why can’t they be just like us? To be sure, contemporary multiculturalism has sought to address the problem. Yet it has done so largely by decreeing tolerance, neglecting the task of explaining the tendency of shunning otherness.

To be sure the shunning tends to correlate with visible markers in appearance, dress, and custom. Not every homosexual person has posed this challenge. For a long time the majority of gays and lesbians have “passed,” being regarded as heterosexual like everyone else. In this way there has been safety, of a sort, for individuals--the safety of the closet. But the effects on the perception of the group are serious. The prevalence of the closet has left the more striking individuals (the "obvious" ones) to define the whole class. This is a recipe for blatant stereotyping.

Professionals have sought to give a scientific (or pseudoscientific) definition of the otherness of gay people. The discipline of abnormal sychology (which included homosexuals as its subjects among others) dealt with those who were different in a socially disapproved way. Hence the terms abnormal and anomaly. Other terms stemming ostensibly from scientific inquiry are pervert and degenerate.

Ordinary language provides queer, a word whose current popularity in academia remains problematic.

Other languages provide different terms for otherness. In Italian there is dall’altra sponda, dall’altra parocchia (from the other shore; the other parish); in Spanish, del otro lado. German supplies vom anderen Ufer sein (to be from other shore) and Anders als die andern (different from the others). Occasionally in English one finds on the other team.

In French the word spécial is an old code word for homosexual. Recently, in the US conservatives have spoken disparagingly of gay rights as “special rights.”


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