One of the topics I found most interesting in my studies of literature was the idea of the other, and how writers have used the other within their work. In the most general terms, other means someone not like the rest of us. It’s kind of like the Sesame Street song that has children picking out which object in the group does not belong. There may be three fruits and a bicycle, and the right choice is the bike, because it is not a fruit. In this case the bike represents the other.
Homer’s The Odyssey is one of the first works of fiction ever created. Homer used the idea of the other to great effect. In the epic poem, many of the people Odysseus and his men encounter are clearly other because they do things that good Greeks don’t do. One does not eat one’s guests. One does not sit around drugged out of one’s mind until one starves to death because no one is working. One does not intentionally lead someone else to their death. These are things that the bad guys do in the story, and they are also things that no good Greek should do. In a way it is a cautionary tale, because it reveals that those who are not Greek do not live by Greek rules. It also shapes the way those who are good Greeks think about those who are not Greek, because it suggests that people who do not have the same social norm sand codes might be capable of such atrocities.
The first piece of English literature, Beowulf, also uses the idea of the other to teach social lessons. In the case of the story of Beowulf, the characters of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are all monsters, enemies so great that only the most valiant and skilled warrior can defeat. Yet throughout the poem are other sub-stories where people act badly – and do things that ought not be done. One such instance retells how a marriage party went very wrong, because two factions who had bad blood between them got drunk and took offense at something someone said or did and ended up taking their anger out at the wedding, killing during what was supposed to be a truce and causing all out war again. While it is clear that monsters had to be dealt with, it also reminds the reader, or hearer, that the rules are there for a reason, and those other guys who forgot it, brought their people to ruin.
Shakespeare used the idea of other in many different ways. In Othello, the Moore was an obvious other who acted just like any other person might when manipulated by the bad guy who was just a regular guy. In The Tempest, the ultimate other, the wizard Prospero, recognizes that he cannot do the good he wanted to for his daughter by keeping her isolated from the world, and so lays aside his magic- his powerful otherness- for the sake of his love for her. But as much as Shakespeare plays with the idea of the other in good ways, he was also careful to set his more fantastic stories far away from the ordinary world of England so that he was not suggesting that the good people who were his audience could ever encounter such scandalous intrigue or villainy.
Mark Twain’s approach was to use the other as a way to exposed brokenness of society. Huckleberry Finn the story of a troubled youth running away from his father who travels with a run away slave, Jim. They travel down the Mississippi River, thinking they could escape to a better, safer, freer life. Yet for all their efforts to be independent, and to keep themselves separate and other, in the end they are not delivered, but are at risk of even less freedom than they had before. It is only when someone from their community steps in an vouches for them that they discover they belonged in society after all. It is the squirrelly Tom Sawyer who shows up at from home with the verifiable news that the Jim the slave was really Jim the free, and than Jim reveals to Huck that the man he was running from, his father, was dead. They had risked their lives to be free as others, but in the end were freer as part of what they had run away from.
Cormac McCarthy uses the idea of other with horrific effect. In his book The Road, the man and his son are among the only humans left with their humanity intact. Almost everyone else they encounter have chosen to see those outside their group as prey for sport or food or both. There is no community to be a part of, only places that used to be homes and communities, with no life in them. On the rare occasions when the man and his son do encounter people who have humanity, they cannot form community because to do so would forfeit their ability to keep surviving. It is only at the end of the book, when the man has lost his ability to continue protecting his son, that McCarthy gives him a possible hope for his son by allowing them to encounter another family willing to take the son on. Yet even then there is a sense that there will be no happy ending, and no future.
The fiction above reflects the societies they are born out of. The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations tended to elevate their own society over the outsiders they traded with or conquered. In fact, Rome expanded by conquering their neighbors, who were labeled as barbarians, which meant they were less than the Romans-which justified them being conquered and looted. After all, they weren’t civilized. Ancient England celebrated valor and greatness in warriors, but only if they didn’t let strong drink and old grievance provoke new feuds. Elizabethan England saw that the world had many different people in it, and were not content to believe that to be different was to be bad. Instead they saw that but believed anyone was the capability to be either good or evil, regardless of their place in society. American’s of the late 19th century saw what was wrong and evil that pushed people out of their comfortable society and weren’t afraid to point it out, even suggesting that justice was to bring the others back into the fold. Modern Americans see how evil men can be, and imagine how they would be if all there was was them against the other survivors in a doomed world. Again, it seems, we have come to believe that others are more capable of pure evil than we are.
Right now it is popular to confront and expose cultural appropriation as an evil to be corrected in the world. It celebrates the notion that those outside the culture are others, and as such have no right to be messing with the things that signify a culture other than their own. Yet part of how we humans function in a larger society is to sketch other cultures with signifiers, or cues, that enable us to identify those things as from a culture different from our own. Using these visual or cultural cues promotes clearer communication of an idea. One of the most common ways we denote a different culture is through the use of costume. These costumes quickly convey the idea of a certain part of the world or certain era of time. The word toga for example, is either associated with ancient Rome or Greece, or a modern drunken party on a college campus somewhere. There simply aren’t that many other settings in which toga’s fit. The same is true with straw hats and overalls. The only time we are likely to encounter straw hats and overalls is on a farmer, or someone who is equally poor and earthy. It is not demeaning to depict farmers by dressing them in overalls and straw hats. It is not demeaning to depict ancient Romans by dressing them in a toga.
There are those who claim it is demeaning to dress in the clothing of a culture that one was not born into. They suggest that to wear a buckskin dress to depict an early native American is wrong. The same can be said for dressing in a sarong to attend a party if one is not Indian, or wearing a keipo without being Chinese. The claim is that only those who have the right ethnicity or background have the right to put on the tropes and icons of a culture. There is a problem with this sort of thinking. First, it assumes people who are born into a culture have some kind of exclusive right to its costumes and trope. Secondly, it assumes that any use of tropes and costumes to represent a culture by those outside the culture will get it wrong. This in turn will cause that culture and its people harm, by creating stereotypes that perpetuate misinformation about a people group. This assumes that people outside the culture are automatically bad for the culture or others.
Yet no one can own something as unstable and constantly shifting and changing as their own culture, especially in a country that takes all the many varieties of the ides of culture and weaves them into new ideas and constructions based on new ways of living. The United States is made up from the threads of many different world cultures. We are a melting pot, and part of what happens to everyone who comes here and becomes American, is that their cultural identity changes as the people change adapt to their new surroundings. Every tradition is tweaked to accommodate differences in what is available locally, since importing from across the globe is expensive. What is more we share our traditions and culture with others by living and working beside each other. We recognize that our ancestors came from other parts of the world, and that we do not share identical traditions and tropes. In adapting ourselves to the new landscape, the new languages, and communities that were made up of people who were not like us, our culture changed, and is changing as we are constantly exposed to new ideas and new traditions and new ways of understanding the world.
We used to be okay with the idea that imitation was the highest form of flattery. It might not be such a bad idea to be more generous in our thinking when we see different cultures being interacted with by imitation. We could instead assume that someone saw something of beauty and value in the clothes from a different culture. We could assume that someone really liked the flavors of a dish from a different part of the world so much that they just had to try to see if they could adapt their own favorite dishes to incorporate those flavors. We could assume that someone so was so touched by the traditional music of our homeland that they wanted to make it a part of what their children experienced during their holidays. We could try to see that others are not bad for wanting to be like us. Maybe they are not all that different from ourselves after all.