Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Objectionable "Other" by Edwin Young

The Objectionable ‘Other’ and a Paradox in Cognitive Inconsistency Theories
by Edwin L. Young, PhD

I went to the grocery today because it was raining and cold. No umbrella. I love walking in the rain. Well, actually, it was more like a drizzle. I am not sharing this with anyone else for fear they might I was currying my hindquarters or preening my feathers.

As I have mentioned before, I take the bus and love the interaction with such a wide variety of people. Many of these bus companions are homeless, some very old, many afflicted in some way, some obviously mentally ill, they are people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, most of them in threadbare cloths, but the one thing the vast majority have in common is that they are poor, but a very few are well educated foreigners. What never ceases to amaze me is that I seem to be a magnet for them. You would not believe how many start talking to me and immediately begin to tell me intimate details about their lives. Today, something happened that occurs frequently. A person in dishabille attire gets on the bus, looks at me while disregarding everyone else, and says to me with an air of respect, “Hello Sir!” In these case, I always respond with a hello. Why I get this response befuddles me. Of course, I am pleased to return their greeting with equal respect.

While waiting for the bus today, a young woman, with her boyfriend, comes up under the shelter to wait for the bus. I heard them enter and turned and saw that she was wearing only a short sleeved t-shirt. Her arms were red from cold wet wind and she was shivering. I just looked at her and immediately said, “You must be freezing!” of course she said she was. What was interesting was that her face literally lit up with joy. Her boyfriend turned and offered his coat but when she refused he started briskly rubbing her arms to try to reduce the icy sting she was experiencing.

I went to the grocery twice today because I do so love to walk in the rain, especially the cold rain. Both round trips were filled with instances like these.

I was thinking to myself but now am sharing with you the thought that there is something wonderful and tragic about human existence. Face to face with the ‘Other’ so many people can be so unbelievably kind, friendly, and open. Yet, on the other hand, the ‘Other’, when regarded from a distance, when regarded as a stranger, when regarded as beneath or above one’s own status in life, when afflicted in some way, when taught by some acknowledged authority that some particular ‘Other’ is the enemy, these kinds of ‘Others’ can be treated in such ghastly inhumane ways without the slightest flinch of conscience. People who treat the ‘Other’ in such inhumane ways often are otherwise respectable, even revered, members of their in-groups.

There seems to be, generally, a bizarre kind of lack, perhaps even avoidance, of self-questioning of their, of this kind of, negative tendency. There seems to be an aversion to thinking, in a down-to-earth philosophical way, about this as an aspect of our human condition. There are, of course, many admirable exceptions but these seem to me to be exceptions that prove the rule. I have even known people who do volunteer work with the less fortunate who, when out of that safe, condoned, context, reel away from the different, from the distasteful in some way, as though escaping from someone with a highly contagious disease.

What used to astound me, when I was younger and went to church, was that I would occasionally hear ministers preach about this issue and the people would profusely approve and then they, as well as the preacher, later would be seen behaving in the exact same reprehensible way that had been upbraided in the sermon.

Psychological research has thousands of experiments that ‘prove’ that people have a strong drive for consistency. Yet, I have found, to the quite contrary, that people have an astonishing capacity for compartmentalization, for keeping inconsistent and incompatible aspects of existence in immaculately detached cognitive partitions, never to risk contamination of one by the other.

Is it just me, or have I accurately diagnosed the human condition.

Author bio:

You can read more of Edwin's work at The Natural Systems Institute.

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