Accepting ‘Otherness’, a Path to Mental Health

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Woman is the other of man, animal is the other of human, stranger is the other of native, abnormality the other of norm, deviation the other of law-abiding, illness the other of health, insanity the other of reason, lay public the other of the expert, foreigner the other of state subject, enemy the other of friend.” (Bauman 1991: 8).

Modern Illness in Mental Health Societal Mental Health;
why Humans need Integration for Health

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The concept of The Other highlights how many societies create a sense of belonging, identity and social status by constructing social categories as binary opposites. This is clear in the social construction of gender in Western societies, or how socialisation shapes our ideas about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” There is an inherently unequal relationship between these two categories. Note that these two identities are set up as opposites, without acknowledging alternative gender expressions. In the early 1950s, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘Otherness’ is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.

De Beauvoir argued that woman is set up as the Other of man. Masculinity is therefore socially constructed as the universal norm by which social ideas about humanity are defined, discussed and legislated against.

“Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.”

For the modern psychologist and sociologist who look at the whole organism in the whole environment, modern life itself, is a basis for mental illness. In mental health the idea of splitting from reality is crucial. Many mental health problems hinge upon whether a person is connected, integrated and whole. When they are not, this is called schizo, split or dissociated mentality.

The modern world is much crisis of resource conflict, famine, degradation of food and water sources, and anxiety over a “dying earth.” Garbage, war, toxins and waste result when human organisms separate themselves from life sources. Humans also dissociate from one another, thinking in terms of conflict, scarcity and otherness as enemy. This results in cultural paranoia as the norm.

The modern world has slowly slipped out of wholeness and belonging in nature. They are removed from sources of supportive sustenance, such as fresh and clean air, food, water and beauty. This does cause a sort of worldwide mental health challenge.

How can humanity re-integrate, re-associate, to the rest of supportive world and its complex inter-dependent web of life?

ecologyThe modern psychologist has come to Ecopsychology through different paths. Jungians came via the idea of a world connected collective unconsciousness. Behavioralists arrived by way of studying connections and needs of organisms for comfort, belonging, nurturing and learning. Still others stumbled upon paths of biology and Sociobiology, naturalists and art therapy, anthropology, immersion in wilderness camping, and more.

The only people who have always been on board with recognizing world-wide belonging and connection as necessarily imperative are poets, naturalists such as Thoreau and John Muir, and geniuses, such as DaVinci and Einstein.

These last few are hardly recognized as working in the sociology or psychology fields, but they followed a truth of science, which can be summed up as “Look at nature and natural laws.” They also knew humility was the only perspective one could realistically take with the grandeur of the cosmos.

If one were to follow the guidelines of the DSM-IV codes, most people today suffer neurosis, anxiety, depression, addiction and much more. All of these can be traced to human “otherness”. Some cultures teach the idea of human otherness and duality so completely that people are in denial that they are human animals, breathing air, re-circulating water, and exchanging nutrients just as every other organism on earth. This separateness, this duality, is extremely detrimental to a cohesive and sense connection with a sustaining world. Guilt, shame and often denial result, and all humans to some degree, upon seeing death by pollution, war, extinction and degradation suffer. ~ Cristyl Rivers

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What is Otherness?

The idea of ‘otherness’ is central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed. This is because the representation of different groups within any given society is controlled by groups that have greater political power. In order to understand the notion of The Other, sociologists first seek to put a critical spotlight on the ways in which social identities are constructed. Identities are often thought as being natural or innate – something that we are born with – but sociologists highlight that this taken-for-granted view is not true.

Rather than talking about the individual characteristics or personalities of different individuals, which is generally the focus for psychology, sociologists focus on social identities. Social identities reflect the way individuals and groups internalise established social categories within their societies, such as their cultural (or ethnic) identities, gender identities, class identities, and so on. These social categories shape our ideas about who we think we are, how we want to be seen by others, and the groups to which we belong.

George Herbert Mead’s classic text, Mind Self and Society, established that social identities are created through our ongoing social interaction with other people and our subsequent self-reflection about who we think we are according to these social exchanges. Mead’s work shows that identities are produced through agreement, disagreement, and negotiation with other people. We adjust our behaviour and our self-image based upon our interactions and our self-reflection about these interactions (this is also known as the looking glass self).

Ideas of similarity and difference are central to the way in which we achieve a sense of identity and social belonging. Identities have some element of exclusivity. Just as when we formally join a club or an organization, social membership depends upon fulfilling a set of criteria.

Without social identity there is no society, because without such frameworks of similarity and difference people would be unable to relate to each other in a consistent and meaningful fashion. Richard Jenkins here presents an introduction to this key concept for the study of society. Arguing that social identity must be seen as both individual and collective, Jenkins aims to show how the work of major theorists from Mead to Bourdieu can illuminate the experience of identity in everyday life.

It just so happens that such criteria are socially-constructed (that is, created by societies and social groups). As such ‘we’ cannot belong to any group unless ‘they’ (other people) do not belong to ‘our’ group. Sociologists set out to study how societies manage collective ideas about who gets to belong to ‘our group’ and which types of people are seen as different – the outsiders of society.

Zygmunt Bauman writes that the notion of otherness is central to the way in which societies establish identity categories.

He argues that identities are set up as dichotomies: Modern civilization, Bauman argues, promised to make our lives understandable and open to our control. This has not happened and today we no longer believe it ever will. In this book, now available in paperback, Bauman argues that our postmodern age is the time for reconciliation with ambivalence, we must learn how to live in an incurably ambiguous world.

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Dichotomies of otherness are set up as being natural and so often times in everyday life they are taken for granted and presumed to be natural. But social identities are not natural – they represent an established social order – a hierarchy where certain groups are established as being superior to other groups. Individuals have the choice (or agency) to create their identities according to their own beliefs about the world. Yet the negotiation of identity equally depends upon the negotiation of power relationships.

As Andrew Okolie puts it:

“Power is implicated here, and because groups do not have equal powers to define both self and the other, the consequences reflect these power differentials. Often notions of superiority and inferiority are embedded in particular identities.” (2003: 2).

The notion of otherness is therefore used by sociologists to highlight how social identities are contested. We also use this concept to break down the ideologies and resources that groups use to maintain their social identities. Sociologists are therefore interested in the ways in which notions of otherness are managed in society. For example, we study how some groups become stigmatized as outsiders, and how such ideas change over time.

When will human mental health be able to recover wholeness?

Only when they shake out of denial in time to see all humans equally belong to the earth.

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Gender
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. (France)

Source: The Other Sociologist

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