From its earliest stirrings to the present day, The United States has continued to construct itself on the foundation of maliciously mythologized others. The first writers of the American story saw fit to demonize the “Indians,” painting them as savages and uncivilized, conveniently lending settlers the right to take their land. Today, not much has changed. Now the other is in the Middle East, labeled a terrorist in a third world country, and just as conveniently paves the way for America to take their oil.
It is obvious that these stories are born out of greed. A greed that begs for moral justifications. But how does a country create a myth of the other? The ingredients are age old.
The first ingredient is fear. This fear can come in many forms, usually entailing some kind of loss. Loss of culture, loss of stability, loss of jobs. Other times, it comes as the fear of violence. Ironically, slave holders used their fear of slaves to justify their slavery, and yet this group of “others” were the foundation of the southern economy. In the lead up to the Iraq War, this same fear of violence, or nonexistent WMD’s, was used to manipulate the public into supporting an unjust and catastrophic disaster.
The second ingredient is nationalism. This is purely an extension of tribalism, and is just as small-minded. A group bound together by a common fear will act together out of that common fear. This is why many times political leaders will beat the drums of war to silence opposition and maintain power. American exceptionalism is yet another way of creating an “other.” If America is the best, all other nations are inferior. Comparison creates division, and these divisions can be exploited.
The third and most dangerous ingredient is dehumanization. Historically speaking, The United States has been very skilled at dehumanizing groups of people. The most glaring example is represented in The Three Fifths Compromise. If a population dehumanizes another population, it will readily commit inhumane acts against them, oftentimes ending in genocide. But how does a population dehumanize another? Here rhetoric is key. The media and leading figures paint the “other” as an animal, vermin to be exterminated, or as savages who won’t “properly” develop the land, or cannot look after themselves and must be looked after. Once these ideas are planted, they are hard to uproot.
It is incumbent upon individuals and entities to be able to recognize these trends and stop them. If we are to break these cycles, it will be through strong measures. The media must tell stories of the decency of people we once feared. The American priorities of endless wealth and power must be called into question. We must redefine greatness. Above all, we must treat each other with compassion. If we act on that, we can begin to see our reflections in our “others.”