explorations of otherness

A few weeks ago, we held our first ‘Otherness Lab’ at the University, with students and alumni in Peace Studies and International Development, and in collaboration with OpenEdge.

The idea for a pilot Otherness Lab had come out of a series of overlapping conversations. For me, this had meant listening to the stories of others and wondering how to respond; listening to my responses and wondering what they revealed about what I take for granted, who and what I other, what I value and long for, and what I find it difficult to let go of. I don’t think we have these conversations often enough, even in Peace Studies, in this setting of a University. Or perhaps we don’t have them in ways that challenge us deeply enough.

What kind of a space is this? At first glance, it looks like a space in which people from diverse backgrounds come together to explore questions that matter in today’s world. And in some ways, of course, it is. In other ways, though, it is also a space that encourages performances of success, that encourages students to see themselves and each other as cosmopolitan professionals, and that thus discourages us from exploring more challenging questions: Is this really as diverse a space as we would like to believe? Are we actually as comfortable with the differences that do exist between us and within us as we might like to think? Are we ready to seriously explore and transform the dynamics of power and injustice that have shaped our lives – especially those that have privileged some of us over others?

I suspect that the honest answer to these questions, for many of us, is no. In an earlier piece, I wrote about some of the things that many of us find easier to silence, in others and in ourselves, and suggested that learning to listen and finding voice is a key part of what we are here for. I believe that we need to find ways of opening up deeper and more searching conversations about dynamics of power, privilege and marginalisation, about who we are and what this means for how we approach work and life and each other.

Among other things, this involves exploring experiences of othering and being othered. ‘Othering’ here refers to processes that assign higher value to some of us than to others, that increase the social, psychological or emotional distance between us, and that eschew genuine engagement in favour of representations that are partial at best (Krumer-Nevo & Sidi 2012). Dynamics of othering centre some people, experiences and needs while marginalising others, mean that some of us are seen and acknowledged for who we are and what we do while others are invisibilised, make it easier for some to be heard and taken into account than for others.

Exploring these dynamics is particularly important for people who are hoping to work in the peace and development field. Critical questions around gender, race, class and colonial legacies are being raised and explored in a range of contexts in our field, among scholars, practitioners, NGOs, activists and policymakers. They are also, and rightly, being raised in and about Universities. Meanwhile, many of the wider contexts in which we live are not encouraging: How, as citizens, do we respond to deepening inequality, the dehumanization of migrants and refugees, political polarization, and increases in racism, religious discrimination, homophobia/transphobia and misogyny? Can we do so in ways that resist demonizing or alienating those whose positions or actions are fundamentally at odds with our own?

One of our first activities in the Otherness Lab involved exploring a collection of images, individually and collectively. In preparing for this activity, I had spent time searching for images online, noticing how uncomfortably easy it was to come up with ideas for images that felt Other to me and/or that I thought would feel like that to other participants.

In a first step, we took a look at these images and each chose two that, for whatever reason, represented otherness to us. This was an interesting challenge: It’s one thing to notice your own responses, another to be brave enough to own them by picking up images that feel genuinely Other.

In reflecting on our choices afterwards, some of us spoke about going with initial gut reactions. For others, it was a more conscious choice. Some picked representations of ways of being that they knew felt Other to them; for others, it was a surprise to notice that things they might have expected to feel Other didn’t. Or vice versa: That things they may not have thought of as representing otherness did. Some acknowledged that the choices they made were safe rather than brave; that some potential choices felt too risky or revealing; that there were feelings, experiences or aspects of identity – their own or others’ – that they did not feel ready to talk about in this space. It was interesting, then, to reflect together on the images that were picked and on those that were left behind: Which of these were the more challenging? What might the ways in which we chose some and left others tell us about ourselves? About our individual and collective (dis)comfort zones? About us as a group? What conversations, sharing, reflections did our choices open up or close down?

Approaching an exploration of otherness via images was an interesting way in. Common ways of describing how or what we think and experience, after all, involve visual metaphors: Perspectives, points of view, vision, lenses, feeling invisible or unseen… Reflecting on our ways of seeing – and on how others see us, or don’t – is important.

But not everything that is visible matters, and many things that matter are not visible. For good reason, much of our time – including much of the time allocated for the images activity – was spent talking and listening, both to ourselves and to others.

We were encouraged to reflect on our ways of listening: on what it takes to listen well; on how often we don’t. On how, while listening, we might draw on different skills and dispositions – analytical and emotional intelligence, reflexivity, curiosity, patience. On what it might mean to listen for different dimensions of what others are experiencing – arguments, stories, emotions, feelings, needs… On how it feels to be listened to and what that does to our capacity to speak. On what we voice and what we don’t.

None of us was part of all of the rich conversations that followed, but everyone was part of some. And there were some important moments of talking and listening that all of us shared. Moments in which people spoke of experiences that mattered: Of how it feels when there is a gap between how others see you and how you see yourself, when only one of the many facets of your identity is noticed; of what it’s like when a significant dimension of who you are is unacknowledged, avoided or invisibilised by people around you; of why some of us feel less at ease and more on edge in this University setting than others; of how hard it can be when others ask how you are and are not prepared to listen to honest, uncomfortable answers; of how it takes courage to be curious about human experiences that challenge deeply held values or beliefs.

Talking of values or beliefs as ‘deeply held’ draws attention to perhaps the most important dimension in which processes of othering and being othered are experienced – the ways in which they become embedded and embodied as visceral responses and ways of being. And this too became part of our explorations of what it is like to be ourselves in relation to others. We were invited to attend to our bodies, to move and encounter each other within the physical space that contained our interactions, to embody experiences of feeling centred or marginalised, othered or at home, to notice and extend our comfort zones.

And still and of course, some of the things that were hardest to explore in this shared space were to do with what it means to be embodied: Questions around gender, race, sexuality, violence, unmet needs, trauma, disability, death and grief. For many of us, approaching these sorts of questions means taking risks with our own vulnerabilities and emotions and/or with those of others. For some of us, taking such risks was a healing experience. As John Paul and Angela Lederach (2010, 110) suggest, ‘social healing is made up of spacemoments of resonance, voices touching voices in a common space’. For others, it opened up difficult things that will take a while to process. And for many, it felt better or more appropriate to listen than to talk.

How do we interpret the silences that are always also part of a shared space?

I think these were of different kinds: The deliberate silences of people who were aware that their experiences are centred more often than those of others, who wanted to leave space and time for others to speak. The uncertain silences of people who had things to share but needed more time to gather the courage to do so. The chosen silences that protect privacy. The reflective silences that made it possible for the voices of others to resonate and move in our own internal spaces. The silences that represent work in progress that may not be voiced or visible.

But also: The silences of those who had chosen not to enter this particular space. The silences of those who would have liked to join us but who couldn’t, in some cases because they were facing more obstacles than others. And perhaps, the silences that represent resistance to the curiosity of those with more power and privilege, resistance to their/our desires ‘for access to the other, and to the knowledge and experiences of the other’ (Jones 2004, 63). (How) did our design of this space centre the needs of some and decentre those of others? With what consequences?

If we are serious about questioning and transforming experiences of othering and marginalisation, some of the work that is needed is work on ourselves and with each other in the spaces and moments that we share. But this work also involves zooming out of particular experiences and situations to see the larger contexts in which all of us are situated. It involves listening not only to the voices that are within touching distance but also to echoes, resonances and silences across time and space. It involves noticing and naming patterns, structures, histories, narratives. It means asking ourselves and each other how we are experiencing our positionings within these larger structures and cultures, what ways of naming them make sense to us or challenge us, and what challenges may be needed even while they are uncomfortable.

It also means asking what the task of challenging and transforming the bigger patterns might actually involve. This, too, raises some difficult questions in relation to othering. Something that clearly emerged from the initial images activity described above was that many of us other power: People who hold power over us, behaviours that are privileged but that we feel excluded from, institutions that produce a sense of alienation.

What do we do with this? Should our attempts at transformation try to avoid ‘us and them’ framings and dynamics, or do we need them sometimes – to clarify what and who we stand for and against? Who are ‘we’? Is an initiative like our Otherness Lab primarily a mutually supportive space for people who essentially share a common ground – a longing for more collaborative, more equal relationships? Or can and should it also be a space in which we explore and challenge what we other, marginalise or miss (both within and outside of ourselves) when we stand on this common ground? And what if our ground is less common than we might like to think?

When are our tendencies of framing power as Other a convenient strategy to avoid the more challenging question of how we exercise power ourselves? Do we acknowledge that many of us play a part in sustaining systems and structures that exclude and marginalise others? That we benefit from them? Might we need to ‘unother’ desires for power and privilege in ourselves? To recognise and transform them? To own and use them? To claim them? To let go of them? How, with what intentions and towards what ends?

What alternatives can we imagine, and what might it look and sound and feel like to move towards them? And as we do so, can we take up Lederach’s (2005, 86) suggestion that ‘[t]he key for peacebuilding is to remember that change, if it is to be sparked and then sustained, must link and bring into relationships sets of people, processes, and activities that are not like-situated nor of similar persuasion’?

These are not easy questions, and they will and should not engender a single response. But if we can find ways of listening more deeply to the questions we are posing and to those being posed by others, if we can become more attentive to what our various responses contain and what they leave out, and if we can extend our internal spaces and comfort zones to make space for a wider range of stories and thoughts, emotions and imaginations, then perhaps that’s a start.

 With thanks to Sarri Bater, Hussein Salahaldin and Juleus Ghunta for taking part in a series of critical conversations leading up to and beyond this Otherness Lab pilot, to Sarri, Hussein and Sophie Docker for planning and co-facilitating much of what happened during the two days we spent together, to Maiko Shimizu for taking photos, to OpenEdge-Transforming Conflict for imagining and developing the idea of an ‘Otherness Lab’, and to the Quaker Peace Studies Trust for funding it. And thanks to all those who took part and turned the space and time we had together into such a rich learning experience.

References

Jones, Alison (2004). Talking Cure: The Desire for Dialogue. In Boler, Megan (ed), Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence. New York: Peter Lang. 57-67.

Krumer-Nevo, Michal and Sidi, Mirit (2012). Writing Against Othering. Qualitative Inquiry 18 (4). 299-309.

Lederach, John Paul (2005). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lederach, John Paul and Lederach, Angela Jill (2010). When Blood & Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing & Reconciliation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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