Fear of the Other

When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, this blog didn’t exist. Even so, I wrote the following post in my head, with the horrible feeling that someday what I’m about to say might be relevant again. Alas, that time has come.

There’s this trend in America that just won’t quit, where unarmed black people are shot and killed by other people who are trying to protect themselves – I read somewhere that this happens every 28 hours, which is disgusting. We’ve blamed this on lenient gun laws, “stand your ground” policies, and of course, racism, classism, and ethnocentrism. I don’t doubt that any of these things play a significant part in this horrific trend.

That said, I’d like to suggest another, more complex, more overarching reason.

The shooters in these instances all believed that they were protecting themselves from some sort of threat. Why?

Why are people afraid of other people?

The things that I’m afraid of – bears, bellybuttons, etc. – are connected in that I cannot predict them and I cannot control them. I can’t predict nor control them because I don’t understand them. But I am a person, and I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a person. I have needs, desires, cares, fears, dreams – all of those things that make my life whole and beautiful. Someone though, when I encounter other people, especially people I don’t know, I often forget that they too have whole and beautiful lives. I forget that because I’m a person and they’re also a person, we have something pretty significant in common. I forget that I understand them.

Not those Others.

No, not those Others.

So how does this happen? How do I so easily forget that all of those sentient beings walking around everywhere are people too? Part of it is self-centeredness. Caught up in my own whole and beautiful life, I get distracted from the reality that it is not my own, nor is it all that unique or important. This is what allows me to use others a means to making my good life better. Another part of it is alienation. I’m content living in a bubble, and rarely interact with – let alone have meaningful relationships with – the many people outside of that bubble, even if they’re literally living right next to me.

These things – self-centeredness and alienation – keep me from recognizing other people for what they really are. This unnecessary ignorance so readily turns into fear.

By the way, this phenomenon is only exacerbated when those other people don’t completely match our expectations for what people are like. That is, when they look, act, talk, or dress, differently from us and the people we do understand. The “other-ness” of those people is exaggerated, and it is all the more easy to fear them. I see this in myself more often that I care to admit on the internet, but also all over the world throughout human history, and in America right now.

Our society is exceptionally pluralistic and diverse, and also exceptionally self-centered and alienated. It’s a fatal juxtaposition. People are pulling guns on each other for no reason other than unwarranted fear.

That’s terrifying. Even more than bears and bellybuttons.

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