Two weeks ago, I found myself in our local high school talking to a very attentive and well-mannered grade ten English class about Boo Radley. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Boo is a character from Lee Harper’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
My students meet Boo early on in the story when three children, Scout, Jem and Dill, become curious to learn more about a mysterious recluse living unseen and unknown inside his shuttered old house in Maycomb, Alabama.
Boo is the “other,” a troubled man who lives isolated from his neighbours, exiled from community relationships or connection. This absence of contact is fertile soil in which will grow the town’s gossip and fuel wild rumours. Pre-judging becomes possible and almost inevitable when there are no bridges, but only fences. The townsfolk don’t know Boo, so they can label him as not one of their own—and Boo becomes the “other.”
As the plot develops, my students learn that Maycomb’s Black population is also set apart from the white community. To Kill a Mockingbird is a Depression-era story set in the segregationist Deep South. With little contact between races, the town’s African-American community becomes the “other.”
I was invited to the classroom to share my experiences as a civil rights worker in Mississippi during the mid sixties. My presentation was designed to make the segregated South more “real” for the students. They would better understand the mortal danger faced by the story’s Tom Robinson, a “negro” (sic) falsely accused of sexual assault on a white teenager.
I have been thinking of the “other” these turbulent days. The race for the American Presidency has bitterly pitted Democrats against Republicans, supporters of Sanders against Biden loyalists. There are many talking points but few listening ears. In our own major cities, the “other” now might be Asian-Canadians who are presumed to be carrying the Coronavirus simply because of their ethnicity. In Iraq, Sunnis and Shi’i Muslims each struggle for dominance. Palestinians and Israelis can find no common ground, only seeing the “other.”
Closer to home, we find groups in favour of a gas pipeline through BC’s mountains and those opposed; many supportive of teachers striking across Ontario and others against these actions. Once the opposite side becomes the estranged “other,” there can be little room for common ground on which to stand and build together. Refugees coming to our shores have typically been seen as the unwelcome “other.” My own Scots-Irish ancestors arrived in 1847 and were promptly labelled as “dirty Irish” boat people.
Admittedly, tribalism is encoded into our DNA. In a provocative article in the journal, Foreign Affairs (March/April, 2019) Robert Sapolski writes:
“Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter.”
Reassuringly, he concludes his article by asserting that humans are not bound by these biological tendencies as understandable as they are.
Instead of promoting jingoism and xenophobia, leaders should appeal to people’s innate in-group tendencies in ways that incentivize co-operation, accountability and care for one’s fellow humans.
This week, one can find evidence that this movement is happening, step by step. March 8th is International Women’s Day, where women around the world are setting aside what could divide them and celebrating what they hold in common. On March 6th, Christians in over 170 countries gathered in collective prayer for justice as part of the World Day of Prayer. And on February 26th, thousands of high school students donned pink shirts as a gesture of support and solidarity against bullying.
Historically, women in the workplace have too often been seen as the “other.” Read biographies of those females who were the first to push through barriers in engineering, politics, law and medicine. A tragic chapter in church history recorded centuries of strife between Catholic and Protestant beliefs, between conservative and liberal theology—labeling one another as the “other.” A grade nine boy in Nova Scotia, who, in 2007, was mercilessly bullied because he wore a pink shirt to school. Once, he was the “other” but then became the impetus for Pink Shirt Day across Canada.
Once barriers are removed and bridges built, the “other” is no longer the unknown stranger to be feared or ignored or bullied, but becomes simply one of us. Pre-judging or prejudice can be replaced by knowledge and acceptance. I believe those attentive high school students will be part of the generation that makes it happen.
As scary as the current threat of the corona virus may be, there is a positive truth to be discovered. With over 100,000 cases worldwide, there soon may be a time when we recognize there is no longer the “other” in our world. May humanity put aside virulent tribalism and be joined together against this new common enemy.
CORRECTION: In my last column, a decimal point got lost when I noted a statistic about family life in Canada. According to 2017 Stats Canada, the percentage of marriages which are same-sex is O.9 %, not 9%.