Constructing Otherness: Past and Present

Causes, Solutions, and Dilemmas 

Othering a group of people has been a mainstay of humanity and while race relations today are better than they were throughout the 20thcentury, there can be no doubt that the mid-2010s has marked the beginning of a worrying trend in which nationalist and xenophobic tendencies have grown ever more mainstream. This comes years after such ideologies had been relegated to the fringes of the political and social landscapes. Although the turn of the new millennium paved optimism that systemic racism was on its last legs and that it would soon be a thing of the past, a historical reading of prejudice shows that it isn’t that easy. Indeed, recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, radical Islamism and far-right populism are indicators that there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. 

Before looking into what can be done in the future, it is necessary that we critically analyze the history of racism and the many forms it manifested as only then can we start prescribing the necessary medicine to remedy such a societal ailment. 

IDEOLOGICAL RACISM

Throughout history, colonizers and oppressors have used a certain ideology to justify their atrocities, especially those that are racially motivated. One iconic example of such an ideology was the American ideal of “manifest destiny”. The story of the concept is quite a long one; the United States was initially founded on the 13 English colonies that were located along the East Coast of America. During the infant years of the United States, these colonies sufficed the agricultural and living demands of Americans and European immigrants who sought to make the newly founded United States their new home. A problem lay with the Native American population who had already lived in these lands and used them to maintain their semi-nomadic lifestyle which relied heavily on hunting. Some American thinkers, such as the US’s third President Thomas Jefferson, believed that the Native Americans were “more advanced” than the Africans who were being imported for slavery and could thus have the capacity to become as civilized as white men. White Americans also thought that the Native Americans’ lifestyle led an inefficient use of land that could easily be used for cultivation, as such it was believed that if Native Americans could assimilate into White towns, cities and culture then they would leave their lands which would then be used for agriculture.  

As European migration to the US increased in the 1800s, more land was needed to accommodate everyone; it was for this reason that the US government advocated the idea that Americans had “manifest destiny” to expand westward. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was enacted which was meant to reserve Native Americans land West of the Mississippi River in exchange for their land East of the Mississippi. Natives who did not wish to relocate would be given the right to US citizenship and to live in the new states that would be formed on their lands. Naturally, negotiations for the land were not this amicable and would eventually lead to the forced expulsion of Native Americans from the land. 
 




Painting entitled 'American Progress', by John Gast, depicting 'Manifest Destiny' (the religious belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the name of God.(Getty)

 

The White Man’s Burden was another ideological idea that justified acts of colonialism. Ironically, the term was originally coined in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”, which makes fun of the idea that colonists’ actions had a certain responsibility. Despite the satirical origins of the term, colonial powers such as Britain would use it to claim that it has a burden and responsibility to civilize the savage nations they were invading and pillaging. 
Finally, the ideological idea of a “pure, dominant” race has also led to atrocities throughout history. The most basic example of this was Adolf Hitler’s idea of a “pure Aryan” race that had to eradicate races and people that he viewed as inferior. This, of course, led to the Holocaust which resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews. Other people who suffered from the diabolical ideology include the Roma, Poles and people with mental illnesses.  

PASSING DOWN THE PROPAGANDA 

Like many things in life, there is an ongoing debate regarding whether or not racism is a learnt trait or innate trait, in other words, this is another form of the age old nature vs nurture debate. It should not be denied, however, that works of fiction and media have historically tried to pass down racist thoughts to the younger generations. 
 




Barbar the Elephant. (Wikimedia commons)

Take, for example, the famous French children’s book series Babar the Elephant. The first book in the series starts in tragedy as Babar’s mother is killed by an unnamed hunter. Things start to look up for the young elephant after he escapes out of the jungle and into the city where he is adopted by a wealthy French lady. As an upper class Parisian, the Rich Lady takes it upon herself to raise Babar and civilize him into human society. As such, she teaches Babar various human habits and skills such as eating with a knife and fork and sleeping in a bed. He is also taught how to walk on his hind legs rather than on all fours and starts to wear his iconic green suit, which the Rich Lady bought him. After a while, two of his cousins also escape to the city and upon meeting them, he starts to civilize them and teach them what the Rich Lady taught him. Feeling homesick, he decides to return to the jungle with his cousins, coincidentally the king of the elephants happened to die just as Babar arrived. Enamored by his demeanor and classiness, the elephants unanimously choose Babar to be their new king. At face value, the story seems like an innocent rag to riches fable, however, there have been many thinkers and writers who have criticized the book series and thought that there were insidious latent messages in the stories. For instance, Ariel Dorfman thought that Babar served as apologist propaganda for French colonialism. It is not hard to draw some similarities between colonialism and Babar’s life, for instance, many European colonial powers preferred indirect rule rather than direct rule. One of the ways they use they did that was relying on members of upper classes who were taught in Western schools and universities. It was this Western cultural cultivation which would lead to their appointments as rulers on behalf of their colonial masters. Similarly, Babar is given a Western education and uses this education to civilize and rule over his native, non-European people. The fact that the books were first published in the 1930s, a time when France had many colonies across Africa and the Middle East and when the White Man’s Burden narrative was still rampant, does make these colonial apologist accusations hold water. 

Another example would be C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, which featured the European inspired Narnian and Archeland Kingdoms waged in a war against the Middle East-esque  Calormen Empire. In the novels, the Calormen are depicted as dark-skinned, long-bearded, rob and turban-wearing and scimitar swinging. Unlike the civilised and enlightened Narnian and Archelandian inhabitants, the Calormen are barbarians who owned slaves and mistreated animals. Again such works evidently attempt to other those who come from non-European cultures by depicting them as less civilized and barbaric.

While it cannot be proven that such works have made people prejudice towards other races, it can be argued that such literature does have a latent bias against non-European cultures and its people. Nevertheless, that's not to say censoring or banning such works is the answer, rather young readers should be made aware of the time period in which the works were published as to ensure that such attitudes would not be appropriate in today’s world. 

FEAR OF UNWANTED IMMIGRANTS

Anti-immigration bias is not a new phenomenon; even during its inception, the United States had preconceptions that favoured some immigrants over others. While the US branded itself as a land founded on immigrants, the immigrants that hailed from non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) backgrounds were often unwanted. For instance, the founding father and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, was racist towards Germans and did not advocate for them to enter the country. The reason for his predisposition was that he thought that Germans would not assimilate into the American customs and culture which was at the time based largely on English culture. He also thought that Germans would attempt to “Germanize” the colonies which were founded by Englishmen. Furthermore, he claimed that Germans, Italians, Swedes, French and Russians had a different complexion than that of the Saxons, thus he thought that they would taint America’s whiteness. Such bias would continue, as 100 years later the Americans were prejudiced towards Irish and Italian immigrants, part of the reasoning behind the prejudice was the anti-Catholic bias that existed in the largely Protestant US. 

FEAR OF ECONOMIC APPROPRIATION 

Many working-class Americans also disliked these migrants due to their cheap labour, this caused a lot of economic anxiety as many believed the migrants would take their jobs. One example of such anxiety would happen in the 1800s, as many Chinese immigrants came to California during the gold rush. Over time, the gold had depleted and was getting hard to find, this led to the Chinese being forced out of mines and enclaves. As they settled into cities and took on various labour jobs, many politicians and labour lobbyists started to demonize the Chinese and blamed them for monetary problems such as decreased wages. This would ultimately lead to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which made it illegal for Chinese labourers to come to the United States.  
This fear of “economic appropriation” is still rampant around the world as immigrants are constantly scapegoated for taking jobs away from native citizens. Furthermore, many people have accused common business practices such as various equal opportunity hiring policies as examples of favouring non-natives over native prospective employees. 

WHERE ARE WE TODAY?

We live in a period of dramatic social change and unprecedented openness in human history. More than 300 million people are currently living outside their homelands and ethnonationalism is on the rise – from the Rohingya people forced out of Myanmar, to neo-Nazis marching with torches in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States - as group-based differences shape contemporary global conflicts. 

The attack in New Zealand on March 15 is the worst terrorist attack perpetrated by an ultra-right wing militant in the history of the country. The increasingly transnational narratives of far-right extremists have strong parallels with other forms of global extremism, in particular, Islamism. Like ISIS, the Christchurch attacker's ideology claims there are no such thing as innocents in this clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, only combatants. Both worldviews emphasize transnational bonds of brotherhood. Both groups celebrate the killing and torment of innocents.

THE RADICAL ONLINE

The New Zealand shooter’s 74 page manifesto that laid out his ideology - which is rooted in a grand narrative of Western culture in decline - the 17 minute live-streamed video of the brutal attack, and means of distributing the two were remarkable for the way they circulated online and in how they were steeped in the conventions of online culture. As The Washington Post noted: “The New Zealand massacre video, which appeared to have been recorded with a GoPro helmet camera, was announced on the fringe chat room 8chan, live-streamed on Facebook, reposted on Twitter and YouTube and discussed on Reddit.” 

The Christchurch shooting wasn’t the first time a brutal murder was live-streamed on Facebook— Three years ago, a jihadist streamed the aftermath of his gruesome murder of a police officer and his partner outside Paris.
The New Zealand shootings reignited the debate on how tech companies moderate their platforms and whether they are doing enough to stop hosting terrorist propaganda and crack down on the spread of extremism online, while also highlighting the difficulty in putting a lid of extremist hate that spreads online. 

Critics of the tech giants say that Facebook and YouTube have not done enough to address white supremacist groups on their platforms and stop the propagation of extremist content such as the live footage of the abhorrent attack which stayed online for a worrying amount of time.  A report by the Guardian found that one video stayed on Facebook for six hours and another on YouTube for three. In the hours following the shooting, the global media broadcast this material far and wide. 

Australia’s prime minister has urged G20 nations to use their meeting in June to discuss a crackdown, while New Zealand media reported the nation’s biggest banks have pulled their advertising from Facebook and Google. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and what is said is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told parliament. “They are the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
 

Subgroups online have spread quickly into online and offline communities that defend extremist postures. These obstinate techniques that attempt to legitimate hate speech on the internet are used by communities that consult hateful content to validate their own extremist beliefs, divide and dehumanise groups, and exploit collective anxiety - turning the internet into an important tool that facilitates the growth of xenophobia and exasperates the problem. No longer do you need to wear the hood to meet a member of the Ku Klux Klan or travel to Iraq to delve into ISIS: You can do it all from your screen.
The US and its allies long ago recognized the need to combat jihadist propaganda online. They have spent many millions of dollars to take down jihadist websites and to offer anti-jihadist messaging online. But efforts to fight far-right propaganda online lack comparable urgency, though right-wing terrorists have killed far more people in the United States in the past decade than Islamist extremists have. 

Few would question the importance of ensuring that extremist material is not widely accessible in the public domain, but while it is essential to pressure these commercial entities to make changes that will silence the hate, Google and Facebook won’t remedy it alone - fighting hate and xenophobia in our societies needs more thought. 

This misuse of this technology could be considered a symptom of wider issues offline in our societies, therefore, broad cooperation between tech companies, academia and civil society, underpinned by state support, is required. Until societal root causes are adequately understood and effectively addressed, the threat of violent extremism will continue to corrupt communities and society at large – whether online, offline or somewhere in between.

THE ROLE OF TRADITIONAL MEDIA

Responsible media can make it easier for facts to penetrate echo chambers is they resist pandering to established constituencies, and aim to provide the unbiased truth to as broad an audience as possible. Britain’s counter-terrorism chief has said far-right terrorists are being radicalised by mainstream newspaper coverage and criticised the hypocrisy of outlets such as Mail Online, which uploaded the “manifesto” of the gunman in the Christchurch terror attack. Neil Basu, one of Britain’s top police officers, pointed out the irony that while newspapers have repeatedly criticised the likes of Facebook and Google for hosting extremist content, sites including the Sun and the Mirror quickly upload clips of footage filmed by the terrorist.
Basu said it was time to accept that many terrorists were being radicalised by mainstream news outlets: “The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”
He cited the 2017 terror attack in Finsbury Park in London as an example of where a man was “driven to an act of terror by far-right messaging he found mostly on mainstream media”.

Basu also said he hoped the government would deal with the issue of mainstream news outlets amplifying terrorist messaging in its forthcoming proposals on online harms and not just target large social networks such as Facebook and YouTube.

“A piece of extremist propaganda might reach tens of thousands of people naturally through their own channels or networks, but the moment a national newspaper publishes it in full then it has a potential reach of tens of millions. We must recognise this as harmful to our society and security.
“Anyone who seeks to deny the negative effects that promoting terrorist propaganda can have should think carefully about the massive global effort to remove terrorist content from social media platforms and the pressure that governments, law enforcement and, ironically, the mass media have put on those companies to cleanse their sites.”
A WHOLE SOCIETY RESPONSE

A “whole society response” is needed that addresses the combined challenges of terrorism and extremism and combats its social roots as well as the growing problem of social and cognitive alienation of young people in contemporary society. 

A broader counterterrorism strategy needs to attack the ideological roots of both far-right and Islamist-inspired terrorism. Both call for militant pan-nationalist alliances based on ‘shared identities’, wrapped up in extremist rhetoric. Both represent a fundamental loathing and rejection of national identity and the nation-state itself and therefore trust and patriotism, then, are both critical in this battle. Diversity is only a strength if people of different backgrounds can work together around shared goals for the common good that people care about and are prepared to invest in. Lack of contact between groups breeds suspicion, reinforces stereotypes and undermines trust. This acts as a barrier to developing a cross-community response to all forms of extremism. The fostering of a civic patriotism is the key to challenging it and re-humanising the “other.”

Scott Atran at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts says that intervening early before anyone becomes a “devoted actor” willing to lay down their lives for a cause is key. “Until then, there are all sorts of things you can do.” One of the most effective countermeasures, he says, is community engagement. High-school football and the scouts movement have been effective responses to antisocial behaviour among the disenfranchised children of US immigrants, for example.

Education must also play a much greater role in a sustainable and effective counter-extremism effort. The benefits of critical thinking education are transferable and sustainable. Transferable because the manipulative efforts of criminal gangs, of ISIS, or of far-right organisations, can all be countered with that same skill set. Greater critical thinking skills don’t just make for safer young people – they make for more critical, concerned citizens. They are sustainable because they lay the ground-work against future threats. Experts like Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment advocate for "a really broad expansive overhaul of education in immigrant areas, and an emphasis on youth work." Hegghammer has called this a "Marshall Plan for improved education in immigrant-heavy areas."
 


Subscribe to the discussion