Human beings have the capacity to recognize aspects of themselves in other people, allowing them to build communities and form meaningful interpersonal connections. The flip side of noticing similarities is that humans are equally cognizant of how they differ from others. For whatever reason, we tend to latch on to those differences and demonize what we simply may not understand or relate to. We cling to what we know and what we recognize of ourselves in others, writing off those whose differences we deem irreconcilable.
I was not fully aware of the practice of othering until I started high school, which of course was ruled by cliques. My school was unique in that the cliques did not form around the stereotypical high school social groups; they formed around artistic ability. I attended a performing arts high school where the dancers were friends with dancers, singers were friends with singers, and so on. There was of course some crossover but by and large, people stuck with their groups. Within each discipline, the groups were again divided by skill and talent, with those considered more talented gravitating towards each other. Each group also carried preconceived notions about their counterparts in other disciplines: the dancers were rude and cliquey, the theater kids were too loud and entitled, the visual artists were anti-social.
For members of my school’s specific social groups, it was easy to see members of the same group as individuals. They were the people they conversed with on a day to day basis, created art with, collaborated with. They knew each others names names, their pronouns, what they brought to lunch each day. However, when thinking about a group that a given person was not a part, the thinking became plural. Members of certain disciplines were viewed as a whole rather than as the individuals that the groups were comprised of, leading to the stereotypes I mentioned earlier.
I was somewhat of an odd case because my best friends were spread across different arts for my entire high school experience. I also didn’t mesh with the group I was “supposed to”. While the majority of my friends were dancers, I certainly was not. While I recognized that the stereotypes the groups made about each other didn’t necessarily have any verity to them, I didn’t do anything to actively combat them either. At times, I found myself slipping into plural thinking and making generalizations about one art discipline or the other that I wasn’t a part of. It’s not something that I’m proud of but it’s important to acknowledge.
High school cliques are a relatively benign example of othering, a phenomenon which is incredibly harmful on a larger, more serious scale. Othering can lead to incredibly hateful thoughts and behaviors, which fuel bigotry and prejudice. There is an important distinction between noticing a difference that you have with someone and making an assumption about them based on said difference. There’s nothing wrong with knowing someone is different than you; it’s only a problem if it affects how you treat them or measure their worth.