This morning while reading the newspaper I was struck by a piece of news. A family in Palermo had agreed to take in refugees from the Ukraine, especially students of economics and medicine. When the refugees arrived, the family realised that the refugees from Ukraine were two Nigerian students studying in Kiev, who were fleeing the war, and refused to take them in. How did the family go from a charitable, generous, compassionate intention of welcoming to rejecting? The article suggested that two factors were at the root of this behaviour: skin colour and origin.


In connection with this episode, in this week’s post we would like to explore a very interesting concept, which generates a whole family of stereotypes, what a nice English word calls “othering“.


Our relationship with the outside world consists of a series of continuous evaluative acts, which allow us to form categories that, by reducing the complexity of the signals we receive, make us construct approximate and reductive representations of reality, which however have the major advantage of allowing us to make quick decisions. The categories have a hierarchical order so that the macro category can then contain a series of sub-categories that are linked to it.

This way of knowing has been necessary for our evolution, it has allowed us to make quick decisions even if approximate, activating the basic mechanisms of fight/flight.These categories work both for the perception of the environment more generally and for the perception of our relations with others, activating boundaries between who belongs to our group and who does not.

The term “othering” helps us to explore this process when it occurs at a systemic level on the basis of a characteristic (sexual orientation, gender, skin colour, disability, age…) that is collectively culturally attributed to “others” and then becomes a source of discrimination, injustice, conflict, war, great human suffering. From a political point of view, it is important to note that the process of othering is triggered by those who control the resources, the dominant group, which through it excludes the “othered” from distributive power, in a vicious circle of exclusion and loss of resources/power generating even more exclusion and so on.


In the 1960s Mrs Jane Elliot, a teacher in Iowa developed an interesting experiment in this regard. In a class homogeneous in colour and social status she induced discrimination based on eye colour, artificially creating a dominant group and a dominated group within the class (you can find numerous videos of these experiments on Youtube). Very quickly (one day) the dominant children started an escalation of exclusion and violence towards the dominated group.

Mrs. Elliot repeated the same experiment over the years with adults and with other classes, always with the same result. The initial objective was to test a dynamic of exclusion among an in-group with very marked homogeneity. What is interesting about the process of othering is that prejudice, created ad hoc by the group’s leadership, took hold where it was completely absent, generating a spiral of violence.


The political communication of extreme right-wingers seems, among others, to have precisely this objective. Leveraging fears, then trying to organise them, manipulate them and take advantage of them. This communication aims to create forms of ‘othering’ where none existed, or to increase othering where it was already latent.


In 2008 the research group composed of Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick published a very interesting study entitled “Competence as Universal Dimensions of Social Perception: The Stereotype Content Model and the BIAS Map”, which contained a model of interaction between individuals and groups, based on two essential dimensions in human relationships: the perception of warmth – how close, similar, sympathetic the other person is to me, etc., and the perception of competence.

Crossing the two dimensions in a matrix we obtain four categories of relationships. The one we are interested in exploring now (for the others, see the research) is that of groups perceived as “low warmth, low competence”.


In another research on mirror neurons, which are those that allow us to empathise, it was shown that in the brains of the subjects investigated, the suffering of people classified in the “Disgust” group did not produce any movement of these neurons, demonstrating a total absence of empathy and compassion towards these human beings. When in the process of othering the other is classified as belonging to the first quadrant at the bottom of the matrix his or her suffering is therefore completely indifferent to us.


Is this perhaps what happened to the family in Palermo who refused to take in refugees? The hypothesis may be that, given their origin, the two young people went from “Sympathy and Pity” to the quadrant below, generating emotional detachment from their suffering, albeit the same suffering that had produced the offer of asylum when brought in by the white population. Is it this process that causes war refugees to be categorised, and that for some of these categories, particularly those who die daily trying to cross the Mediterranean, there is no compassion, but rather a debate about closing borders?


In the beautiful article “The problem of othering Towards inclusiveness and belonging”, John Powell and Stephen Menendian ask what systemic responses to othering should be given (if you are interested in this topic, do not hesitate to visit the UC Berkeley website, which is full of materials).


The two authors analyse the systemic responses given so far, all of which have created great human suffering as well as a host of other problems, in particular

segregation – denial of the humanity of the other, which artificially separates groups that risk conflict, preventing their contact and access to the same resources, as happens for example in the Parisian banlieues, with the result in this case of leading to the radicalisation of some of them;

secession – allocating a territory to the ‘others’, arbitrary labelling on the basis of a single dimension, which historically has rarely proved to work, and which, taking homogenisation on the basis of one criterion for granted, does not take into account that within the separated territories there will be othering at work;

assimilation – with its set of obligations for the dominated party to adapt to the dominant party by renouncing its culture, language, religion… in which those who assimilate renounce key elements of their identity in order to continue to be considered “other”.


The conclusion is that the only possible dynamic that opposes othering is belonging. Not belonging granted a posteriori, after the resources have been distributed, but beforehand. The belonging in which the other is not asked to “fit in”, to adapt, but that which has at its base an idea of shared equity, in which the rules of the game are discussed together, not established unilaterally by the party with power.

Belonging that goes beyond the concept of inclusion, in which there is no party that decides who is in and who is out, but in which, together, using dialogue, we establish how to live together. The leadership that serves this purpose, the leadership of belonging has as its objective the regeneration of relationships and, with them, of systems, just as happens in Nature.


Photocredit ©Reuters