Alterity, Sensemaking and Innocents II

            A friend contacted me following publication of this column last week to ask whether I might be concerned that framing, as I did, the challenge of alterity using examples from other nations might lead some readers to imagine that such is an issue for those “others” and not here in the United States. I surely did not mean to imply that such is the case. Sadly, human beings everywhere, including certainly, in this country, appear to have a penchant for declaring other individuals as invidious and/or imagining that they are somehow less than they are. This behavior can be rationalized on many grounds, including real or imagined differences of many sorts. Whatever its “justification,” once one establishes such a belief as a foundation, it becomes much easier to treat the targeted population with discrimination, disdain or worse. Indeed, because one has decided those groups are “less than,” one can “other” them with impunity and regard them accordingly. I profiled two cases last week in which this process led to the murder of an innocent woman and attempted murder of a teenager. Those perpetrating these crimes had defined their victims as “others” and “less than,” and in so doing crafted a supposed rationale for their deeds. Each victim could be the target of wanton cruelty because each had been reimagined as something contemptible and alien.

            One recent example of these behaviors in the U.S. occurred in August 2012 in Steubenville, Ohio. The episode found a profoundly inebriated young woman who had fallen essentially unconscious repeatedly sexually violated by members of the local high school’s football team as those young men carried her, largely naked, by her legs and wrists from party to party one evening. The members of the self-named “Rape Crew” shared their exploits as they undertook them on social media and via cell phone photographs and video. Many fellow students witnessed their actions and shared text messages and photos, but did not intervene. One of those privy to many of the events that night was reported to have tweeted, "Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana,” and "Some people deserve to be peed on." Sadly, others promptly shared this drivel, whose malignant character speaks for itself.

            While this case did not involve murder, it was nonetheless heinous and a horrific example of the viciousness that can be unleashed by the process of “othering” another human being. Like their counterparts in Pakistan, those responsible for this outrage regarded their 16-year-old victim as less than human and somehow worthy of the shameful treatment she received, as did at least a share of those who observed the events. Obviously, the victim was very much a human being and those principals engaged in raping her have since been convicted of crimes for their actions. The court did not punish those “celebrating” the travesty, although such may yet occur as an investigation continues. In any case the football players and the many who witnessed their atrocities and did nothing to stop or report them, surely acted with reckless disregard for the humanity of their victim, if not also with hatred and malevolence.

            In short, Americans are by no means immune from the cruel pestilence that can so readily result from the pervasive condition of alterity. As with human beings around the world, the question is not whether some of our citizens will so behave, but how to use acculturation and law to minimize the likelihood that they will. The questions that I raised in my last commentary concerning citizens of other nations are just as relevant to our own. I confess I do often wish it could magically be otherwise.