Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Conversation about Otherness

Craig Hovey and Sharleen Mondal, professors at Ashland University, had a conversation about otherness that ranges into issues of race, the state, violence, pedagogy, and how history gets told.

Craig Hovey: There is a lot of talk about "otherness" in some circles, especially when there is some political or other threat, real or imagined. I'd be interested to start off by talking about whether there are special kinds of difference that lend themselves to being spoken about in this way. In other words, what are the qualities of the differences that are most entrenching when it comes to the us-them divide? 

Sharleen Mondal: There are certainly special—or at least, specific—kinds of difference that seem to emerge frequently in discussions of otherness.  Racial, religious, class, and gender differences are among these, though I find it less useful to isolate them as such, given that each intersects with the others (so upper-class women of color, for instance, are "othered" in very different ways from women of color living in poverty).  If we are restricting our discussion to the current U.S. context, it would appear that those who do not conform to, or who are read as not conforming to, a particular norm are othered in certain contexts.  The norm of which I am speaking is shaped by structures of racial, gender, and economic power and privilege.  The structures are also shaped by the U.S.'s long history involving racism, class struggle, and the fight for gender equality, as well as perceptions of certainly religious traditions as uniquely American (and of others as foreign to America).

CH: Right, the question about what constitutes a "real American" often involves a lot of these kinds of identities. In California, where I'm from, I've noted anxiety among some whites at the prospect that we will be outnumbered by Latinos several years from now. I've always interpreted that anxiety as rooted in dwindling cultural clout for the white population, and the loss of economic privilege that goes along with that. There may be other factors, such as anxieties about bilingual education. But it strikes me that it may not really matter how much these are real or perceived realities. It seems to be enough that there is fear. Another example from the news I've been thinking about is how language is increasingly becoming a factor of division in Ukraine, with Russian speakers facing discrimination in the western part of the country. What do you think we can say about what makes a norm significant enough to generate this othering response for those who do not fit it?
One thinks, perhaps of how current antagonisms against homosexuals in Uganda are linked to anxieties about AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. I've wondered how that situation might be different if it weren't for AIDS.

SM: I think it might be limiting to speak of marginalization and oppression simply in terms of norms without considering the role of the state.  By state I'm speaking simply of the entity that, by the rule of law, is given the right to violence (police, military, prison industrial complex, school-to-prison pipeline, detention centers located outside state borders to avoid prosecution for gross human rights violations, etc.) in a particular society.  Norms don't arise purely socially but are propped up by the threat of force.  Although there certainly are very popular fictions that particular norms are the norm because they have somehow stood the test of time and emerged as the best practices, these fictions are dangerous and disingenuous.  In my discipline, English literature, you often hear such arguments about "great books" or "the canon"—arguments about how some works simply are superior, without recognition of the colonial and other regimes of power that long suppressed other authors and cultures.  If we take this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, what I am saying is that when othering is supported by law (as in Arizona, for instance, when anyone suspected of being undocumented could be stopped and asked for documentation), the practice of othering becomes essentially culturally sanctioned.  The deep suffering of those regarded as enemies of the state--or as stateless--is immense (the obvious example is Palestine, though there are many others).  I'm not saying that state-sanctioned epistemic, physical, psychological, and military violence are the only instances of generating othering; I am saying that ignoring the role of the state in this kind of violence would be an immense oversight.

I'll return a question to you, drawn from the thoughts I have shared: how do we figure out how to respond to state-sanctioned violence against those deemed "others"?  What does that process of struggle, organizing, and activism look like?  (You can take "we" to mean professors, or people living in north central Ohio, or people in the U.S./global north.)

CH: I'm glad you brought up the role of the state which, in its monopoly on legitimized violence, enshrines and makes official the norms that many will then take to be "given" in some sense, perhaps by telling a fictitious genealogy about how it "was bound to be this way." The true story gets lost. When I mentioned norms, I intended it somewhat ironically—"norms"—because of how they are in part created and sustained by the forces that imagine that they have what Nietzsche in Zarathustra called "winter doctrines"—the surging summertime rivers are now frozen over and give comfort through the illusion that they are ice all the way to the bottom. Societies operate with these fictions when they scapegoat a group of people. There probably isn't a single answer to my earlier question about what factors cause some "norms" to become more important or, put the other way around, what causes certain kinds of difference to become more of a problem. It seems to me that one reason why there is likely more than one answer has exactly to do with the fictions you mention--these stories that make a "norm" appear to be ice all the way to the bottom: so, for example, while Muslims in America and Latinos in Arizona became, both officially and unofficially, regarded with suspicion according to a cluster of reactions and associations surrounding 9/11, security, economy, terrorism, and so on, it seems clear that these things are mostly convenient ways of sanctioning forms of violence that were already there. So if national security is a "norm" now--or, in my disciple of theology, what we would call an idol--which it clearly is, we saw how it was quickly wheeled in at a crisis like what Naomi Klein calls the Shock Doctrine. But what it does is not new; it exploits and expands on what was already there. The question about what causes some differences to become a problem, then, is linked, as I think you may have been suggesting, with what becomes identified as a crisis as a state identifies it. But then the state will exploit what is already there, in some instances, as I believe we are probably seeing in Uganda with homosexuality.

I've already gone on too long, but let me take a stab at your question about responding to state-sanctioned violence against "others". This is very important and I'd like to hear your thoughts too. I think that first we recognize what is going on. We are told that some group are "our" enemies. We must question who the "we" is and we refuse to accept that we have the enemies we are told we have. Demoting the "we" itself accomplishes a lot in this regard. There is a challenge in this, though, especially for people like me--Americans of certain privilege--since it can mean taking only selective responsibility, bowing out to keep my hands clean but then standing up to collect the spoils. So seeing that challenge, or a version of it, will look differently for different groups and it seems to me that it can even in nuce be again the problem we are trying to solve! In other words, the process of disclaiming certain entailments of one identity for the sake of overcoming the friend-enemy distinction someone else has handed me may involve me in the creation of a different one. 

I have lots of other thoughts on your question. Let me say just one more. If I take the "we" here as professors, I think we take seriously our role in what a colleague here calls "mythbusting." We profess: tell the true story; bust the fictions you spoke of. I read Rene Girard with my students and I go back and forth on whether just exposing the myths that support scapegoating will be enough to deflate them (or whether self-deception is stronger than this: will I go on believing something I now know to be false?). In the scheme of things, it is only one thing, but it is a necessary one.

SM: I'd like to expand on the point you've made about truth-telling, myth-busting, etc. as professors.  While I agree that exposing students to narratives of what you're calling "truth" is necessary and urgent, I'd also like to draw a distinction between speaking for and speaking to invite.  I have learned a great deal, from my work as an activist in communities of color, about how important it is not to speak for the oppressed.  Doing so simply perpetuates a cycle of violence in which the oppressed are assumed to have no voice worth listening to, to have no ability for self-representation. Gayatri Spivak calls this kind of silencing "epistemic violence" and it is indeed a form of violence, deeply insidious because it so often unchallenged and so often cloaked as truth-telling.  It thrives amongst university professors.

What does it mean to invite students into the stories and experiences of others?  The best answer I have heard to date is the one Edward Said draws from Antonio Gramsci, who in The Prison Notebooks discusses how history leaves in each person an infinite number of traces, traces marked through national history, our families, and our own individual experiences.  Yet we lack an inventory of these traces; essentially, we lack the guidebook that bears witness to the connections to others that we hold within ourselves.  The great task then, Gramsci argues (and Said agrees), is to create that inventory through critical reading and interpretation, and ultimately, through that act, to arrive at an understanding of oneself through the other. Spivak calls one variation of this process "unlearning privilege"; essentially, both involve a path of destabilizing the notion of exceptionalism in favor of an inventory of our fraught interconnectedness.  As a literary scholar, I find literature especially rich for probing what I'm calling fraught interconnectedness.  Many of the works I teach by some of the greatest writers—Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Rabindranath Tagore, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, Ralph Ellsion, Richard Wright, Angela Davis--are all about engaging with fraught interconnectedness (without which the narrative is impossible). 

CH: Even though your main area is literature and not history, how would you describe parallels between how fictional and historical narratives function for one's interconnectedness? I think about the work of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, for example, as truth-tellers of sorts. In their efforts to tell the truth about history and current events, would you say that they at risk of enacting a certain epistemic violence? Is this what you are saying thrives among university professors? Do you feel that they should they be doing something different? 

SM: There is a limited usefulness in texts like Zinn's and Chomsky's.  I think we risk epistemic violence when we pat ourselves on the back as good progressive professors when we assign Zinn and/or Chomsky (neither of whom I assign, by the way)--without also assigning texts by voices from the margins.  Yet there are so many syllabi that do this.  It's possible for an undergraduate to go through such a course and see Howard Zinn as the champion of oppressed peoples whose histories haven't been told without actually reading narratives/seeing films/engaging histories crafted by those peoples.  Such a form of teaching does a serious disservice both to the materials covered and to the students.  I'm actually very interested in why Zinn and Chomsky are the names you're thinking of--why not, for instance, Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror, or moving beyond that very limited form of narrating history, anthologies that juxtapose writings by various groups, offering readers the chance to understand history through such a juxtaposition?  I wonder what it would mean to divorce "truth-telling" from particular figures who speak for others, and instead to frame truth-telling as a process of, as I'd said earlier, taking inventory and providing interpretation.  I wonder what it would mean to avoid naming ourselves as truth-tellers and instead to see ourselves involved in a far humbler and less congratulatory act of interpreting and unraveling.

CH: I don't assign Zinn or Chomsky either, but I thought of them because of how popular they are. I agree with you that it is much better to be exposed to a variety of voices and there are many good ways available for doing this. There's also a kind of naiveté, you are suggesting, in understanding truth-telling in a narrow way that busts into the room with loud proclamations and self-assured statements. That's very important to say too. I recall something Slavoj Zizek once said in critique of Chomsky: that a strict fact-based approach that assumes that truth is simply a matter of these facts rather than those facts may not do much to challenge the false narrative in which the supposed facts are embedded. This is why I spoke earlier of truth-telling in terms of telling a different story. And of course there are many stories and many story-tellers who need to be heard. There is an inverse here too since one notices that there is very often a kind of progressive story being told by people like Zinn that many have noted actually makes him rather clumsy with the facts, despite his aims! So this project of "interpreting and unraveling" is not only a humbler one, as you say, but is also nearer the rough ground where a more genuine understanding may take place.

Thank you for taking the time to have this conversation! It's been great to explore some challenges and possibilities together. Any parting thoughts?

SM: Not for now—thanks for the dialogue.

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