On fearing the “other”

Recently, I was speaking to a friend about what happened on Oxford Street last week. Well, I guess I should say that we were talking about what didn’t happen on Oxford Street. For those of you who don’t know, Oxford Street is one of the busiest/well-known shopping areas of London, akin to the Miracle Mile in Chicago. As I was sitting in the library on a Friday evening (hey, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do), my friend sent me this photo, with the caption, “be careful:”

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I was a bit concerned, and my other group chats reflected as such:

Be careful guys, there might have been a shooting at Oxford Circus station

Nobody get on the tube in that direction

Was it a terrorist attack?

Fortunately, nothing actually happened at this tube station. Despite the scare, people were held in shops on lockdown, and none of the transportation headed through that area was running. The police responded efficiently and quickly, despite how real the incidents might have been that night.

This friend with whom I was speaking (Maria) happened to be in one of these shops when all of this happened, and after the matter, she told me that she felt scared, but moreover just “powerless,” to use her exact wording. This word brought back a quote that another of my friends from U-M (thanks Indie!) told me after the mis-fired explosion at the Paddington Green tube station back in September.

I told her, “Ah, man, it looks like I’m probably going to have to try and take the bus more often, or the overground.” She responded to this by saying that one cannot really avoid these types of attacks. When I thought more about this, it’s pretty true – we can’t directly avoid the chance of being on the wrong train at the wrong time, unless we choose to never leave our apartment, live in a concrete house, or simply never really live life as a social being. Quite simply, we probably assume more risk of dying from a car accident each time we sit behind that steering wheel than what I assume when I step into the tube carriage.

Another thought occurred to me, combining the “powerless” idea from Maria and the thoughts that Indie shared with me. There is a way to lessen the feeling of powerlessness that may in fact indirectly factor into the ability to avoid a situation like an explosion on the tube. I only say indirectly because, ultimately, there is only so much a common individual can do to avoid attacks categorised as “terrorism.”

To understand my perspective, take another gander at the photo included earlier in this post. Do you see, just one line below the live stream of the Oxford tube incident, what’s included in smaller text?

More than 230 killed in Egyptian mosque

The society in which I live seems to have less regard, care, and notice for those who don’t belong to the commonly accepted “western” world. It’s really easy to not care about an explosion here, a shooting over there, so long as it doesn’t affect those who I believe belong to a similar enough community to mine. It makes sense to be fearful of attacks in Europe because, quite simply, Europeans see an attack in France or London as an attack on Europe as a whole. US citizens fear attacks in European nations because it’s very easy to draw similarities between Europe and the US (for my current purpose), as societies belonging to the “western” world. When an attack takes place in a “non-western” world, then perhaps we just don’t feel as threatened, because a place like Egypt isn’t seen as “similar enough” to the US or the UK for us to fear the same attack in our home country.

The fact of the matter is that those who die, regardless of where they come from, are humans just as much as anybody else. Our media does not reflect an inherent equality in being human, exhibited precisely in the screenshot I included in this post. Whether directly or indirectly, this sort of representation might be harbouring a fear or an alienation from societies that are not similar enough to our own. (I use “our” here as a general term referring to “western” culture. Yes, I know this term itself is way too general and I can’t make these sorts of sweeping generalisations, but bear with me on this one.) Perhaps we can call this the cultivation of a “fear of the other.”

Without going into too much social theory or practical knowledge, I might say that the “fear of the other” has worked itself into mainstream policies and ideas of national protection, perhaps best revealed by how much the state spends on national defence. This idea lies within the general fear, or hesitation, of letting too many of the “other” move into one’s own country, or having incredibly strict border regulations. This concept is more noticeable in the US, as opposed to the UK, where many European citizens live in London especially.

And let me tell you, London is undoubtedly the home of the “other.” I live in an area with especially large population from Lebanon, Jordan, and surrounding countries. Living in London, I will have heard at least three other languages being spoken by the time I end my day. With full honesty, I realise how easy it is to become fearful of the “other” when you live in an area with only “in-crowd” folk, but once you start living amongst the “other,” you start realising the myriad ways in which the “other” contains so many similarities, some that even make you, you.

Is it truly the fear of the other that leads to attacks on certain cultures, peoples, and societies? Why feel the need to make others suffer? Is estrangement and stigmatisation such a powerful negative force in society, enough so to fuel hate between societies? Are attacks in response to the “western” world’s fear and ostracisation of the other, or are they because of a fear of the “western” world?

Without answering any of these questions, I might venture a guess that in many of these cases, those who feel the need to go as far as taking human lives feel deeply unloved. In a truly roundabout way, I’ve reached the point I wanted to make about lessening this feeling of powerlessness that Maria had mentioned to me before. As a member of what has historically (and perhaps unjustly, I might add) been seen as the “in” crowd, I believe that I have a duty to help dissolve the wall between insiders and outsiders. Even if you’re not a white male, but still live a life where you feel, in some capacity, accepted into some sort of group, I still think you have an obligation to let others feel just as welcomed as you might feel. How might this work?

Quite simply, welcome the outsider in. Be it smiling at whoever is walking by, despite their race, nationality, origin, or location of where they call home. I know it’s not as difficult, perhaps, to work myself into British culture, but I can speak from experience that it really makes a difference when someone from the UK truly makes an effort to become friends with me. Perhaps in making an active effort to show love to anyone you meet, you will undoubtedly catch outsiders with that love. In doing so, we can make an effort to let more people in this world feel welcomed and loved, harbouring a more inclusive and peaceful, rather than adversary, world environment.

To clarify, I’m not making a claim that only “foreigners” commit attacks or harm the insiders. Rather oppositely, I’m making the claim that even locals can feel like outsiders, and this feeling of estrangement is so counterintuitive to humanity that it may lead some to commit unthinkable acts. Also, it’s a tall order to make the world a more peaceful place, but we can do this on an individual level for now.  As we work on getting the little things done, some may then have the capacity to start changing world politics, in a way that allows for more inclusion, less harmful nationalistic ideologies that keep people on the outside, and harbour less need for using violence and killing to merely prove a point, or say, “I don’t feel welcomed by you.”

Perhaps, only then, may we start to spend time on fostering the growth of vitality in all human life, even that belonging to the “other.”

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