How Politicians Divide People For Their Own Ends

Terence Chong

Terence Chong

Terence Chong is a student ambassador of Adam Smith Center, and a current undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.

The concept of the Other

The concept of the “Other” has existed since the very dawn of human civilisation. Although the specific semantics can vary widely, the concept always involves a sense of exclusion of a group due to a perception of difference in identities, however that “identity” is defined. This divisive concept serves to divide people into two camps: one that embodies the norms of the valued identity, and one that is defined by their differences from the said identity, and is thus susceptible to exclusion and discrimination.

I shall use a historical example to illustrate this concept. During the Colonial age, many European colonisers sought to portray the colonised as barbarians, or savages. A good example would be the Spanish colonisation of the Latin Americas. In order to justify their exploitation of local natives, the Spaniards declared that it was a holy mission of theirs to spread Catholicism amongst the natives. We can see how the “Othering” works here.

In order to instil a positive public perception of their conquests, the Spanish elites pushed the idea that the people they were colonising were different from them in terms of culture, language and religion. It was because these “savages” spoke a range of guttural languages totally foreign to Spanish ears. It was because these “savages” did not wear the supposedly civilised clothing that the Spaniard wore. Therefore, the Spaniards believed all the exploitation that they carried out was all for the sake of “educating” these uncultured natives by teaching them to dress, speak and pray like them.


How politicians divide people for their own political goals

The concept of the “Other” has always been used by political leaders and elites to manipulate the masses, and engender certain opinions and perceptions that they desire people possess. It is used by many as a call of unifying support by appealing to a common identity, or ignite a common hatred and disdain. I argue that it is a potentially dangerous concept that is the antithesis of a fair and just society. It distorts reality for a large number of people, directing unhealthy emotions towards imaginary solutions.

Let me give another concrete example here.

Ever since the successful communist takeover of Cuba in 1959, the dictator Fidel Castro has held the reins of power alongside his brother Raúl, supported by their massive party apparatus. Their stranglehold over the country has led to vast economic stagnation for decades. However, in order to distract the populace and consolidate his grip on power, Castro conjured an image of an enemy that the country faced: America.

America was the “Other” to Castro and Cuba. It was the foreign imperialist enemy. He blamed the problems the country faced on America’s embargo, riling the populace’s hatred for this foreign enemy, when in reality much of the fault lies in the communist’s failed policies. To be sure, America’s embargo did contribute to the woes Cuba faced for the last few decades. It most certainly did in more ways than one.

However, that does not mean that the Castros are absolved of all blame for leading the island nation to ruin. In fact, by uniting the Cuban people against a common enemy, Fidel Castro was able to stay in power with high levels of public support not commonly held for dictators. He managed to outlast many of his Cold War counterparts, becoming the last one standing as a relic of a bygone era even after the ushering in of the 21st century.


How the concept of the “Other” plays out

Now that we understand the power of the concept of the “Other”, we have to be aware of its destabilising presence today. Unfortunately, the concept did not die with the coming of modernisation and globalisation. Of course, we still see many similar narratives resurging in a new wave across the developed countries as discontent resulting from the influx of immigrants grow. We see this in Europe, where far-right parties like Alternative for Germany and Five Star Movement gained a newfound voice amongst the disenfranchised in recent years.

However, I posit that there are other popular forms being touted, that can be perceived as different from traditional narratives of the “Other”. We see this in America today, where party lines are as divided as they have ever been (For more on this, see Justin Amash’s recent defection from the GOP). A cursory glance at various American media outlets that have different political leanings will leave neutral readers with a sense of confusion.

Just by reading news articles by CNN and Fox side by side, we can see how the media portrays the same events in totally different manners. It’s not exactly a relevation that media outlets have their own specific agendas. Media, in whatever form, has always sought to engender certain opinions in their readers since the invention of print. But what is new in this age is the undeniable reach of the media for any average person. In a society so interconnected, it can be jarring to see a society still so divided amongst arbitrary lines of “identities”.

Immigrants. China. The 1%. Inequality. In short, the oppressors against the oppressed. And the list goes on.

For better or for worse, these are examples of terms and concepts arising from the act of “Othering”. I believe that it is impossible to prevent this wave, seeing that it appeals to the fundamental sense of community and belonging the human nature craves. The “Other” has not waned in civilisation’s thousands of years of existence, and it probably will not die off anytime soon.

However, it is still important for us to be very conscious of this concept and try to free our minds from its unyielding shackles. At the very least, we can then try to reconstruct a fresh perception of the world around us, and hopefully pursue the things that really matter to us.

The “Other” has not died. It is seeing its resurgence in this new digital age. But it is up to our individual selves to be aware of its influence over our lives and transcend it.

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Terence Chong

Terence Chong

Terence Chong is a student ambassador of Adam Smith Center, and a current undergraduate at Yale-NUS College.