Updated: Apr 4, 2020
You sit at your desk after a long day’s work, bored and ready to stroll out of the office and head on home (or maybe migrate from desk chair to sofa in the current situation). Twiddling your thumbs, you wait minute-by-minute for the numbers in the corner of your laptop screen to flick forward and read ‘17:00’, so that you can finally clock off for the day happily aware that any calls or emails sent after this hour can be blissfully ignored until tomorrow. Before you do, however, I want to draw your mind away to something very different – how is it that you can see that ‘17:00’? How can you read those distinguishable digits?
It is simple. It is a process of differentiation – the figures in white set against the background in black allow the mind to obtain something clear and firm. Early years education and a life of observing the world in years, days, hours and minutes mean that the black and white represent more than just abstract figures to you. They have meaning, although totally intangible and inanimate as a concept and meaningless without this imputed knowledge. What I am really getting at is an ability to see the world, appreciate the objects and sights around you, by acknowledging the boundaries of colour between them – the stark contrast between the black and the white that prevents you from looking at a blank canvas. The shape and form of that white set against the screen shows ‘17:00’. When you paint on a blank canvas, the stroke of a brush can become the sky; the sun; flowers; trees; anything you like. Colour and shape differentiate the objects such that an image before your eyes is more than a mess of colour, but a picture that you understand.
Does this sit well with you?
Now, let’s move on to something a little more complex. For many years, psychologists, political scientists, philosophers and linguistic specialists have toiled with the idea of what gives words meaning and what that meaning contributes to our knowledge of the world around us. Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roxanne Lynn Doty, David Campbell and Lene Hansen have all taken a crack at explaining our knowledge of the world around us in this way (and you are more than welcome to give them a google at the end of this). For our purposes, however, only a little elucidation needs to be made. Famously, Derrida proclaimed, ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ – often translated to ‘there is no outside text’. Instead, I suggest you take it as, ‘there is nothing outside of context’. The demarcation of the boundaries of a word and its associated meaning come from what it is not. A chair is a chair because it is not a table. Chair and table go hand in hand – they are different, distinguishable, tangible objects. A rich, mahogany dining suite, set against the cream walls of your dining room can easily be picked out – in both sight and meaning.
To Saussure the world is built in binaries – binary oppositions – good/bad; hero/villain; woman/man; God/Devil. Through these networks of binaries, the fabric of our knowledge manifests. We define the world, our knowledge and understanding (and obviously sight) of it by discerning what it is not. We know what a chair is. We distinguish its shape and form from the air and space around it, and then we give it meaning. A chair is to be sat on to relax, to read, to study, to eat, to share a coffee with a friend. Build up enough words of the world around you in this way and you will see how interlinked meaning is. So interlinked that words form overarching discourses in our minds. There lies a pattern of language we cannot escape because without words, life as we see it has little meaning - what is a chair if we don’t know to sit on it?
The previous paragraph showed you a basic defining process – establishing what is, from what is not. It’s time to expand this further. Perhaps if you are in the States you associate ‘migrant’ with ‘Mexico’, or here in the UK, ‘refugee’ with ‘Syria’. It is unsurprising when the News channels (a little less at the moment maybe) take turns to blast warnings of ‘floods’ of migrants; of ‘alien invasions’; of ‘uncontrolled masses’; and, overwhelmed healthcare systems and exacerbated social services. Of the intangible, I am British because I am born in the UK to British parents and have lived here all my life. I am British because the island on which I reside calls itself a ‘sovereign nation’, and has things like border checkpoints, passports, currency and other such tangible iterations of statehood. Yet countries collapse and fall apart and disappear from existence. Well, if a country can do such a thing, why can the idea of ‘country’ not do the same?
Do you see now how such associations are problematic? This is the process of ‘othering’.
Like ‘country’, we accept terms such as ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ as fixed concepts, yet we only know them by defining our world in terms of those nations, states and borders which give them meaning. What took us from the supercontinent Pangea to the seven rings we see on the Olympic flag, I ask you? Other than millions of years of earth-shattering tectonic plate movement, it was those at the forefront of humanity, narrating the world as they navigated across it. A perfect storm of European pirating combined with a thirst for knowledge and the French Revolution birthed the Enlightenment, and with it, a fixed notion of what the world is and is comprised of. It takes only one glance in the world’s history books to know who built knowledge of the world.
When we define ‘migrants’ and we associate them with ‘invasions’ and ‘plagues’, we contribute to the construction of the fixed nation we live in. Don’t forget a migrant can only be a migrant if there is a country from which they come and one to which they are going. And so, when we define ‘migrant’ we are defining our own borders. We reaffirm that they exist and are not merely arbitrary constructions designed to define the world and make sense of the chaos of 8 billion people inhabiting one planet. We feel patriotic knowing we are one nation of shared people, working and living together for the common good. Someone disrupting that border brings unease to the nation, as a place and a concept.
However, quite obviously there is a problem with this. The binary relationship that must be formed to define us is where the good and the bad must divide. When Trump said that Mexico is bringing in criminals, we forget the criminals that are already ours and instead embed criminality in the other. This is the real gripe with defining the other - we are good and the other is always bad.
Maybe this is why for so long and still to this day, many people struggle deeply with understanding transsexual and non-binary individuals, both of whom blur a long taken-for-granted binary opposition – man and woman. This is despite the fact that childbirth statistics frequently prove that it is not natural to define sex and gender so definitively if one considers the 1/1000 babies born intersex every year in the UK. Imagine standing in a lift (maybe you are at work or the gym) and in walks someone notably androgynous. Maybe you don’t notice, you don’t care or maybe you are proud and happy. Possibly, you could be one of a number of people that grapple with this stranger in your mind - you have to know, you just have to know, it cannot be any other way – what can this confusion of nature be? Who are they? What gender were they born? Who are they ‘trying’ to be now? (What’s it like down there?) It does not sit well with you not being able to define the person next to you - they are part of a language you haven’t learnt.
Can you see how such thinking is unnecessary and harmful? Violence can be done in that process of othering.
Meaning is not stable and nor should it be. Question the words you use, the weight behind them and the meaning that you are embedding. At the end of the day, we are all only human.