I read an interesting biography of Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly a few years ago. The author – Billy Connolly’s wife Pamela Stephenson – describes Billy playing with some kids in the street when he was about five years old. The playmates’ mother apparently stuck her head out the window and yelled ‘don”t you play with those Catholics!’, giving the future funny man a fairly stark view of ‘othering’ and prejudice. People do this so of things with every possible attribute or quality, be it religion, ethnicity, cultural background, gender identity, sexual preference, disability, employment status, social class or even musical taste. We humans tend to form groups and exclude others. We look out at those who are not like us and see them as different, as ‘other’ to us. This exclusion can lead to extreme behaviour in some cases, such as racial vilification, violence or extremism.
As a child I didn’t really know much about these things. Like many children I saw myself as essentially the same as others. My best friend in the first years of primary school was from a Jamaican background. She had beautiful brown skin and amazing curly hair. We both wanted each other’s hair – apparently my straight blondish locks were as thrilling to my friend as her tight curls were to me. I never had any concept that my best friend was not the same as me in any fundamental way. We both enjoyed drawing and chasing each other around the schoolyard. We had the same accent, lived in the same English village and loved making up games together. Sometimes my classmates – usually the older kids – would call my friend names. They said she was ‘black’. I told them that this was silly. I really had no concept of prejudice based on someone’s physical attributes such as skin colour. To me, my friend was no more ‘other’ than my own family were. She was my friend.
When I got older, I found myself becoming the other, for while primary school had been relatively benign, at high school I learned that apparently I was different. People picked on me, teased me for everything I did and said and was and bullied me. I was the least popular kid in the school. I wondered what was different about me. I couldn’t pick it out. I didn’t hate the kids who hated me. Surely I was just like all the other kids, but no. I was told that I was a swot, nerd, weirdo, and worse. I was teased for sexual things which I didn’t even understand. I didn’t know how anyone could tell that I was a ‘slut’ when I had never had sex. Life as the other was not very fun.
Years after the hardship of school, I discovered that I had Asperger syndrome. The reason I had been seen as ‘other’ at high school was almost certainly related to this. Being Autistic was amazing. I had an identity. There were people like me. Suddenly I was in a group that made sense. One thing troubled me about my new identity though and that was that some people ‘othered’ non-Autistic people. Not in a bullying or aggressive way but most certainly in terms of ‘us and them’. These people talked about ‘neurotypicals’ – people without a diagnosis of Autism. At first I thought this was great but then I started to wonder. For ‘neurotypical’ just means non-Autstic. That is, lacking in just one quality or attribute. The idea that neurtotypicals were a privileged group, as some people implied, seemed very foolish. I mean, one can not have Autism but have schizophrenia, or be homeless or unemployed. The main difference between them and me is that hey don’t share one single attribute – that of Autism. Certainly Autism is a fairly significant part of who I am but I would prefer to focus one what I share with others rather than what makes us different.
I prefer to see our similarities and what we share rather than the things which ‘other’ us from other people. It’s all very well to own one’s identity with a sort of fierce pride – thats fine and I understand it and do it myself from time to time. But I don’t want to exclude people because they are different or minimise their experience. Young children as much less likely to ‘other’ one another I find. Those differences that adults often fixate on are unimportant. Kids can teach us a lot in this regard. And people who have different attributes to us can broaden our horizons and open up new worlds of knowledge and experience. We’re all people – let’s ignore otherness for a while and listen to different viewpoints.
I spoke at a conference last year and one of the keynotes was an awesome fellow called Patrick Schwartz. Patrick talked about working with people with different conditions and disabilities. Instead of saying ‘Michael is Autistic’ or ‘Trey has cerebral palsy’ he would say ‘Michael has as an attribute Autism’ and ‘Trey has as an attribute cerebral palsy’. Maybe we can look at others like that and see things which make them different from us as simply attributes. Works for me
We’re all essentially the same and just a little bit different