The enemy within and without

by Jonasan

The process of ‘Othering’ is one which most people will be familiar with, even if they didn’t know there was a name for it. You (a culture, a society) treat a separate group as if they are, in their very essence, something different and threatening to you (your culture, your society) so that the only way to protect yourself is to keep as great a distance as possible between you and this Other while either fantasising about or actually bringing about a world where this Other no longer exists. This is a fairly old name for a practically primaeval phenomenon. Criteria for being an Other vary, but it is often based on an ethnic or religious difference. Crucially though, it is not the case that this group are ‘the same as us except for x‘ Rather, at the very basic level, to be a black/white/Jew/Muslim/Catholic/immigrant/gay is to be other than human (or on some theorists’ reckoning, to be unbearably human) so that your very presence creates a necessary fracture in the harmony of my (our) lifeworld.

The Frankfurt School and its sympathisers would see this as a symptom rather than the ailment itself. The falsity of the fascist wager becomes apparent in the underlying logic which makes inevitable this Othering. The pre-neoconservative thinker Carl Schmitt argued that an enemy image is necessary to create a harmonious society. ‘Society’ within the terms of his argument is only truly achieved when a nation is mobilised to a state of near-perpetual war – both internally and externally. The pairing is critical to maintaining the balance of power. Jews/Bolsheviks; counter-revolutionaries/capitalists; terrorists/enemies of freedom; thought-criminals/Eurasians (or Eastasians) – all these are examples of a comprehensive Schmittian pairing of internal and external enemy. The falsity I just mentioned exists in the notion that the ways of life of these various societies must be defended from the outsiders mentioned. On the contrary, the societies require these pairings to function at all. The only way to disguise the fact that it is not a harmonious society is to blame all the ills on some intrusive external agency which is apparently bent on taking away what little the citizens still have. The Other is a necessary structural component which does indeed betray illness, although the disorder exists at a much deeper level and Othering is merely a symptom of it.

None of this is particularly new or original. Othering, and labelling in general, is a lazy way to find a simple solution to deeper problems; idiotically simple when you consider those who engage in it seem to have intellects just capable of grunting out the inference “x happened, so somebody must be responsible for x” and so discount ideas, thoughts and more complex forms of causation as responsible for societal maladies – probably on the basis that none of these latter (unlike people) are the sorts of things which can be seen, heard, smelt or lynched. Even those who consider themselves progressive can all too easily fall into this trap. It is much easier to believe that the Illuminati are to blame for war, crime and injustice than to face the structural defects of society. The question is never ‘how can we get rid of these people who are secretly manipulating society to serve their own ends?’, but rather ‘how can we reconstruct society so that it would be impossible for anyone (secret society or otherwise) to have such unthinkable levels of power and privilege at the expense of other human beings?’ While not quite as insidious as the fascist’s Othering, the interpretation of events along the lines mentioned is similar in its intellectual laziness and cowardly unwillingness to confront the real problems.

“Evil resides in the very gaze which perceives Evil all around itself.” – Hegel.