Justice and Penal Issues · Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

Otherness

Sitting in at an UNFPA Universal Access Workshop, I heard possibly the wisest thing in the past two weeks that didn’t come out of my own mouth. It came, instead, from UWI lecturer Dr. Christine Barrow, on a panel discussion on the structural barriers to universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment…

She said, “Tolerance facilitates stigma and discrimination…”

Not sure where this idea comes in then...(Photo courtesy http://www.maati.tv)
Not sure where this idea comes in then…
(Photo courtesy maati.tv)

Think about it – when we ‘tolerate’ someone, we still think of them as the other. If we tolerate the slow kid in our Biology class, it’s because he has something that we view as difficult to tolerate – his inability to learn. In the same light, when we tolerate a gay man, for instance, it’s not because we view them as the average person. We view him as close to an average person, if it wasn’t for his pesky sexuality. In that sense, he’s not human. He’s gay. And you can ignore that, look around it or look at it. But, to some degree, it’s all you see. In that case, it might not even matter if you’re discriminating…

The same thing is seen for prisoners. When they go to jail, they acquire a status away from that of the Average Joe. When a man comes out of prison, he looks for a job and a place to live. When a landlord let’s him rent at his place or an employer gives him a job, he’s doing it in spite of the man’s prison record. Forget his CV or work experience. What is important is whether they can deal with that person coming out of jail. And an ex-convict is unemployable. A man who employs an unemployable man is tolerant. Because the ex-con never becomes employable.

There are two questions here. The first is how the hell does this change? When persons assume a status, like ex-convicts, that sticks with him for life. Some statuses are themselves permanent statuses that the person has to live with, like LGBT people or people living with HIV. We can’t take those statuses away, short of erasing people memories…

"So, we hear you're a bit of a racist..."
“So, we hear you’re a bit of a racist…”

Truth is, society is nothing more than a group of communities. There always will be an other. It’s how we identify ourselves, the people living next to us, the things we want and don’t want to be. It’s how we create support systems and identify our tribes. There is literally no way that we can remove another’s otherness short of allowing a person to interact with another with no idea of who that other person is – no name, or geography, or status. And even then that person’s still the other person that we don’t know anything about. We infer, interrogate, or fear that person.

Which bring to the second question – do we even want to? I discriminate against drug users, promiscuous people, people with anger issues…for the purposes of ensuring that those people do not pollute my own identity or the tribes I am a member of. And, for the same reasons, people discriminate against me. I put their self-image and perspectives on certain behaviors into question. If they prefer their morals and tribes over mine, they’ll get far. Even if I tolerate those folks that I put a 10-foot pole in between, I still recognize them in specific ways, and those ways are vital to the way I recognize myself.

There are some that I’ve removed the status of, that I see as human. I no longer tolerate those people, I engage with them. And everyone has those people, and they’re all different. That’s a part of who we are, too! But getting rid of the ‘other’ isn’t. And that’s both unfortunate in some places, and really necessary in others…

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