Blast From the Past: The Good Kind of Othering

It’s late Wednesday night, I’m tired, and eagerly awaiting the vacation I start in just over a week’s time. I’m also as scatterbrained as hell and have been for most of the year. So, have a blast from the past.

The Good Kind of Othering

In an attempt to stay well away from the toxic soup of political matters, I’ve spent a lot of time this past week doing Other Stuff. This, I promise you, is a Good Thing, because my snark-o-matic was maxed out and the uber-cynical button stuck in the ‘on’ position.

While I’m quite sure there are those who enjoyed the results, it’s tiring and kind of draining when it lasts long enough: I’m the kind of extreme introvert who needs plenty of down time to recover from bouts of mega-snark.

Which means that I really, really shouldn’t go near the rather sad rant of a certain award-winning author who managed to let slip that she knows she’s a token winner but still thinks that’s okay because those who disagree are ___ist.

Sweetie, I’m humanist (as opposed to humanitarian which, like vegetarianism, is a dietary choice I’m not ready for). I don’t give a flying what sub-sub-group of humanity you belong to. My criteria for books I’ll read is “a good book”. My criteria for people I’ll make friends with is “a good person” (for values of ‘good’ which are somewhat quirky, but that’s Odds for you).

Books – fiction of all flavors – tend to work better if authors treat their characters the same way. Let them be people first and vehicles for the plot or theme or cause or whatever very much second. It’s not even that difficult to, provided you actually have some notion of how people work.

The first thing to remember with character-building is that no, not all people think the same way. We tend to assume that everyone thinks just like us (this is, in my view, one of the rare advantages of Oddity – you tend to find out relatively early that you don’t think the same way other people do. Then you often need to work out that other people are still people, but that’s a different issue). It’s one of those human failings and why so many folk don’t understand how anyone could possibly believe [insert religion or ideology here].

It works kind of like this: when we’re babies and toddlers, we learn really quickly and tend not to forget what we learn – but the knowledge we pick up shunts off into the automatic systems where it gets used without any conscious input on our part. How often do you think about how to walk? But there was a time when you had to work really hard to coordinate your legs and arms and the precise tilt of your body, and if you got it wrong you fell over.

As well as the obvious stuff like how to walk and talk and so on, we also picked up our basic view of life – call it the personal Theory of Everything – during that time frame. This is mostly when we humans learn what not-family people are “our kind” (generally, anyone who looks or acts differently than what we were around when we were growing up is not “our kind”), and what the rules are for interacting with other people.

Authors are supposed to make it possible for us to live inside the head of someone whose basic ruleset isn’t the same as ours. To do that, authors have to be able to imagine and understand someone whose life follows very different rules. This is a dangerous undertaking: it brings the risk of losing oneself to the Other (hence the heated debates that follow when someone tries to understand the motives and motivations of those who commit horrific crimes – there’s an almost atavistic fear that understanding something well enough will lead to it consuming the one seeking understanding… Where did you think the Cthulhu mythos came from? Whatever else he did and was, Lovecraft understood human fears like few others), as well as the fear that one will find it harder to mete out justice to someone whose motives are fully understood (this one does hold a certain amount of accuracy).

A good part of the whole notion that authors can’t write something they haven’t experienced or a person from a culture different from their own stems from this reflexive belief – as does the idea that a reader can’t identify with a character that isn’t enough like them.

To which I say bollocks. Humans aren’t telepathic. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head – but despite that we manage to be incredibly good at figuring out what other people think and what they feel. Of course we authors are going to use that in our characters, and of course readers are going to be able to identify with it if it’s done reasonably well. It’s one of the skills that we as a species are very good at.

Pity those who refuse to try for fear they will lose themselves to the Other. Pity them, but don’t let them make your choices for you.


  1. If it makes people feel better, dogs are also great observers of the Other. They may not understand why you do stuff, but they know exactly what you do, when you do it, and what signs precede and follow your behavior.

  2. To be fair, it is not always true that understanding creates feelings of love and trust. Sometimes the more you learn and understand, the more horrifying the situation becomes.

  3. Dogs have been around us long enough that they have been genetically selected to read our faces and attitudes – the ONLY species that has.

      1. I would note that “Staff training” does imply _some_ understanding of our non-verbal cues, if only because it’s necessary to determine which bits of our training are working & which need more work…

  4. When I was a young gay activist, one of our unspoken articles of faith was that our problems with the straight world were mostly just a big misunderstanding, and that if we could just communicate with people (e.g. by coming out of the closet and letting people see the real us), everything would be better. I still think that that was largely true, but I was brought up short once by someone who told me he didn’t want to understand because “to understand is halfway to condone.”

    That said, I think SF/F fans, in general, really do want to understand things. I’ll usually give a story a bad review if I get to the end and there are major things I didn’t understand. It can be fun to learn that although the aliens live in salt water, they have to breed in fresh water (if it’s key to the plot, anyway). We like learning bits and pieces about other cultures and people different from us, provided it’s not via infodumps.

    1. 1. I believe that there is no telepathy, and anatomy cannot tell us of all the variations in internal mental state.
      2. The category of normal, sane, and functional seems to contain a wide range of variation. These differences are largely concealed by the way the social and language processing of most people work.
      3. There are absolutely severe mental illnesses, with thinking that is profoundly disordered. Unless one is extremely grounded, spending a lot of time with people so ill, talking about their thought processes, is a good way to get caught up in them oneself.

      You do not have complete information about the mental states of the people classified as ‘gay’. You may think that you have enough information to make conclusions about the whole of the set. Other people will process things differently. Neither you nor I could perfectly predict the results of full understanding. You might find that it is, in fact, the last thing that you want.

      1. What bothers me isn’t “you don’t know what it’s like to be _____.” Because I don’t.

        What bothers me is “you don’t know what it’s like to be me but I know exactly what it’s like to be you”.

        We’re all of us surrounded by aliens. Sometimes I think that the really excellent writers are the ones who can capture *that*.

        1. By that, I’ve pretty much always felt alien. The most insulted I’ve been, or perhaps the fastest way anyone has been classified as a moron, was when someone claimed to know what I was thinking when I was thinking no such thing as they claimed. They had it in their mind that I was or was meaning one thing, rather than what was really going on – and refused to believe what my thoughts and reactions really were. I can sort of get along with this person, but let’s just say I would not</b. "buy a used car from" that fool. Even if he is brilliant at almost everything else he does. I just cannot trust that level of sheer wrong.

        2. yeah I’ve gotten some pretty extensive judgements under the second part from plenty of mundanes and have taken only brief moments to need to prove them wrong.

    2. It would be really easy to get into politics which aren’t the focus of this page so I’ll just agree with you. The notion that understanding or explaining why someone did what they did means condoning it or excusing it or agreeing with it, is a huge problem and I really wish people would stop. Particularly as disagreement gets one explained to yet again, because clearly no one can legitimately have differences of opinion.

      But yes, so much… understanding the Other is important. But understanding doesn’t mean that the other becomes just like you. And yeah, I think that science fiction and even fantasy readers really like to explore the idea of “alien” and understand or experience being different from who they are and what they know.

      1. There was a woman who wrote an excellent book on religious-inspired terrorism. She had the gift to empathize with her subjects – as in learn to understand why they did what they did and how they thought about things – and to get them to open up to her. What she did not do was sympathize with them. Yes, she could intellectually explain why a man was so motivated by his belief in a form of Hinduism that he murdered several Muslims. She did not condone his act in any way.

        Yes, you can understand without approving of. Why people think that is impossible… No idea.

        1. I’ve been meaning to explore the difference in the two words “empathize” and “sympathize”.

          I feel like the information is becoming increasingly relevant.

          1. I blame that on the corruption of language. Empathy, understanding and sympathy have of late, been greatly conflated in the minds of people, thanks to very bad pop psychology and the purely emotive uses of the words, not the intellectual ones.

            Which, quite frankly, annoys me. The problem is not ours, but lies in those whose use of ‘understanding’ does not include ‘grasping an idea’ because that would mean they used evil patriarchal reasoning and logic.

        2. I think Synova has it right:
          “Particularly as disagreement gets one explained to yet again, because clearly no one can legitimately have differences of opinion.”

          IOW, it’s so obvious to me that if I explain it to you, you have to agree with me. If you don’t agree, then it’s obvious I didn’t explain it so here I go again…

          Also, I’ve found that some people think that if you disagree with something they say, believe, or do, you are attacking them / don’t like them.

          1. If agreement is important to their religious ritual, and if their religious ritual is important to their sense of self, we would expect people to react that way to disagreement.

            Sorta the same feeling as if you aren’t grounded enough, and all of a sudden find yourself immersed in the disordered thoughts of someone who is ill beyond your ability to cope.

          2. Ah, yes. The difference between “I understand what you are saying and I agree with you”, “I understand what you are saying but I do not agree with you”, and of course, “I understand what you are saying but I do not understand how you could think/believe what you are saying.”

            Some folks seem to think the only valid position is the first one. Because they are right and everyone else is either wrong, wrong-headed, or outright evil.

        3. Because it’s standard to insist that if you don’t basically say “you’re right,” then you don’t “really” understand.

          It’s almost as bad as the abuse of tolerance– by definition, if you tolerate something, you think it’s wrong.

          *grumbles* Semantics, they matter, dang it.

          1. The “tolerance” one makes me nuts. Tolerating something that you dislike or think is *wrong* is IMPORTANT. It’s fundamentally important if we’re going to live in a pluralistic, diverse, society in any sense peaceably!

            If “tolerance” doesn’t mean putting up with something you dislike or disapprove of, then it means nothing at all.

    3. “Understand” is a problematic word as it has two meanings that are not really close:

      “You don’t understand!” (“You aren’t sympathetic!”)
      “I understand perfectly.” (“I comprehend just fine.”)

      And the misunderstanding of understanding leads to misunderstanding.

      Ox go lie down now.

  5. I could hardly stand to read this post. My family is being torn apart over a disagreement over what the building inspector said because group A says “it is obvious that he meant this” and group B says “it is so obvious that he meant that that we wonder if you bribed him to change his mind”. If we could stop thinking that it is so stinking obvious maybe we could see the nuance and avoid the accusations of bad faith. Maybe.

  6. I understand (in the sense of comprehending the logical process that led to a conclusion) a lot of things that I don’t understand (in the sense of agreeing that those processes are validly applied to known facts.) Comprehension does not lead to acceptance–I can predict what someone who believes a certain thing will do without wanting to do the same thing.

    I think that is a quality missing from a lot of modern authors. There is very little room for differences of belief in stories I read today. Characters come in two varieties, those who agree with the author on every significant point, and those who are irrationally evil.

    I expect that’s because many authors lack introspection. They don’t examine the process of understanding–they just accept that A,B, and C are what good people think and X, Y, and Z are what bad people think. This makes for very boring, one-dimensional characters, and destroys narrative tension. You know going into the story that the good guys will do good-guy stuff and they will win, and the bad guys will do bad-guy stuff and lose.

    1. the good guys will do good-guy stuff and they will win, and the bad guys will do bad-guy stuff and lose

      The difficulty is breaking that pattern while still having heroes and villains. It certainly can be done, but it’s done badly more often than well and results in off-putting stories. Could the good-guy go home and beat his wife? Could the bad-guy be his church’s main benefactor? Sure – both actually happen. But I don’t want to read about it.

      Nadrak, from The Lensmen, is a good example of a good-guy doing what we consider bad-guy stuff for good reasons of his own.

  7. Given that humans are hunters, we have to be able to empathize and understand critters that we intend to kill and eat. We also have to understand and predict the actions of inimical critters, natural hazards, and enemy humans.

    There is a chilling story in that Kenda book about how he got a killer to tell him all about his horrible sexual fantasies and what he did to this girl, all by making nice small talk as if he liked the guy and shared his interests. He did not actually sympathize with the guy at all, but he understood him well enough to use it as a weapon.

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