Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time for reflecting on the problems of racism, xenophobia, and the social distinctions that divide us. But the politics of 2016—from nativism in the United States to anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, which facilitated the rise of President-elect Donald Trump and Brexit, respectively—suggest that in 2017, we might do well to adopt a different lens for viewing such issues.
One way to understand last year’s events is through a theory in social psychology known as “othering.” It explains how identity formation, as well as group cohesion, is facilitated in part by distinguishing oneself from those viewed as different. The distinction can be based on traits that are inherent, such as skin or eye color, or socially constructed, such as the distinction between Hutus and Tutsis. Identifying the “other” is part of what binds a group together, by creating mental rules for identifying who is in—and who is out. Othering can be pretty harmless, even beneficial, when it builds community among, say, sports fans rooting against the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys (which is why sports leagues hype artificial rivalries between teams).
When it comes to national identity, though, othering carries substantial risks. Policymakers seem to have vastly underestimated the need for othering—and its consequences. Sure, scholars always knew it existed and there has been some good research on it. But many did not recognize the extent to which othering was a central threat to liberalism and globalization, and even started to think that cosmopolitan integration was inevitable.
Here’s the key: if a nation’s “other” is suddenly removed, it can and often does fall into internal disharmony and dysfunction—and it often takes years or even decades to fully manifest. Consider the evidence. Since the end of World War II, there have been two big cases of an international “other” suddenly disappearing. One was decolonization. When the United Kingdom or France or another colonial overlord retreated, most ex-colonies, no
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