Othering the Other

by Debbie Notkin

This entry is written as a response to “Complexity in an Age of Uncertainty”.

I know I’m not the only person who is deeply upset by the consistency of the voting maps in this month’s election. In every state, we see blue cities and red rural areas. Of the 375 counties with the worst COVID spread so far in November, 92% of them voted to keep Trump in office. In North Dakota, the virus is so uncontrolled that the governor has told hospital personnel to work even if they are positive and symptomatic days before he mandated mask wearing. For many, the individual liberty of the maskless supersedes the individual liberty of the health-care worker, just as the individual liberty of the folks brandishing their guns at the local bar (urban or rural) supersedes the individual liberty of the endangered bystander. 

We both see it the same way: The urban/rural divide is getting deeper, nastier, and more destructive. In this context, I find your essay in this symposium extremely disturbing, though I understand that your intention was to bridge the gap. Perhaps even more unsettling is the fact that I agree with just about everything you say. 

So I want to ask some questions in the hopes that we can “have a civil discussion about our different values” because of our shared values. I would love to ask in a fully open spirit of inquiry, with no defensiveness or argumentation, but I also know that I feel somewhat defensive and argumentative, so I hope you can allow for that if you choose to answer. 

I completely believe that “we are scornful of country folk and dismissive of physical labor.” I absolutely stand with:

“We have to take care of ourselves where we live because neither major political party has served us.  We are used to uncertainty here.  We are used to needing each other despite our differences.  So far, we have fought off a mine, a CAFO, and we’re fighting a pipeline through our precious ecosystem.  We found the courage to do this because this is our home, though outsiders have tried to divide us.”

Do you believe this scornfulness and abandonment are limited to rural people? I can unequivocally support what you say, while also saying, “we are scornful of poor city folk and dismissive of their physical labor” and:

We have to take care of ourselves where we live because neither major political party has served us.  We are used to uncertainty here.  We are used to needing each other despite our differences. So far we have fought off a coal terminal in our city, an attempt by billionaire Mike Bloomberg to control our school system from 3,000 miles away, and we’re fighting to keep from having public land turned over to corporations for pennies, so developers can build gentrified residences. We have found the courage to do this because this is our home, though outsiders have tried to divide us.

How do those statements sit with you, stretching between two worlds? And how do you think they would sit with the neighbor with whom you had a civil dialogue? Could you raise the questions with her that you are raising with your symposium readers? 

I love it that you acknowledge the way we have stolen all the land from the brown peoples (and I am convinced that you know about land we have stolen more recently from the black people). Is this an issue you can raise with your neighbor? And what would she say about it? If you disagree, have you figured out – so hard! – how to live with that disagreement without dismissing either your historical knowledge or her position?

You want me to acknowledge the ways your neighbors have been mistreated, stereotyped, and ignored, and I do that with an open heart. Are you also asking your neighbors to acknowledge the deep systemic racism of our country, and the damage that does? 

A couple of years ago, I bought Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Our Midst. I was excited about reading it until I listened to her interview with Krista Tippet on On Being. Now it languishes unread. Hochschild’s entire strategy seems to be about convincing her mostly liberal readers that the people she meets in rural America are not demons, by finding the same kind of enviable common ground you find with your neighbor. I want that too. I also want rural America to acknowledge that my queer community and my black underclass neighbor and friend and the immigrants from Mexico and Central America who live and work and pay taxes and die of COVID-19 in my community are not demons. 

I probably have much more privilege than your neighbor, so perhaps it behooves me to accept your implied accusation that a preponderance of fault lies with me and mine. But when the distinction is urban vs. rural, the accusation extends not only to me but to my neighbors with far less privilege – far less safety – than I have. Should I tell Art, my brown mailman, that he should be thinking more about farmhands, when he walks my streets every day hoping he’s not breathing infected air? Or should I tell the prisoners fighting wildfires in California for fifteen cents a day that it’s important to remember the value of physical labor? 

Or, perhaps, should we all be reaching across the gaps and looking for commonalities? You identify yourself as having commonalities with both your neighbor and your most likely readership, and I value that. I feel that I too have commonalities with your neighbor, even though I don’t work the land, that I too can recognize different ways of speaking, or the communication of the animal and plant kingdoms, even though I live in a city. I can’t speak for Chicago, but every Californian, from the most to the least privileged, knows when there’s a drought. 

Othering may be a “natural human tendency,” or it may be something we’ve been taught for centuries—I don’t know. I believe all of us benefit from being aware of both who we are othering and who is othering us. Too many times, no one is punching up and no one is punching down—we’re just punching each other on the same level, each side claiming to be victims, when we could be holding each other up. 

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