It is shameful that we have a #MeToo movement. Not that women suddenly feel empowered to share their experiences of victimization, but that it is even necessary. Women have not felt and still don’t in many cases, the ability to talk about instances of sexual harassment they’ve encountered. This is shameful. Men in positions of power have used that power and status to victimize women and treat them like objects. This despicable behavior is being called out across the board, and it is sad that we have to have a movement for it to occur. What is worse is that the ones who are victimized are called into question or even called names. We make objects out of those who have been objectified. It’s critical we listen well during these times. As Christians, compassion is a hallmark of our faith. Pressing into the stories of pain is part of our mandate. I am just so sorry we have to have a movement to hear those who have been victimized.
The phenomenon of making objects out of others, removing their dignity, and removing them from a bigger story is called Othering. We make objects out of one another, label one another with names or associations and treat them accordingly. For instance, Bill Cosby is now in prison. He was found guilty of drugging and raping women leaving a swath of devastation in his path. There is no question that he viewed women as objects. They were people, not objects. To Cosby, they weren’t women, mom’s, daughters, professionals, colleagues or co-workers. They weren’t people with their own story. They were there for his pleasure. This kind of thinking couldn’t have happened overnight. A gradual sliding into this sickness had to occur.
Othering happens easily. First, it happens in our thoughts. It doesn’t take much of a nudge to think poorly of another person. It can be as simple as driving. When someone cuts us off, we automatically think negative thoughts about them (or maybe it’s just me!). It isn’t their behavior we object to; it is them. Maybe it is your ‘lazy’ teen, who despite your best efforts, refuses to clean their room. At work, it can be easy to think poorly of a colleague who dresses poorly or who is sick often. Churches aren’t immune to this way of thinking. As a pastor, people have made an object of me, for good and for ill. We do not divorce their behavior from their personhood. We don’t think of people like moms, dads, brothers or sisters, people with hearts, minds, and feelings. We think of them as objects for our use, placeholders, things to get us where we are trying to go or people in our way.
Objectifying and dehumanizing others is never helpful. It leads to actions. Once an Othering thought is conceived, we can act as we choose. If women are objects, men will treat them accordingly, using them as they see fit. Sexual harassment at work and other places become the norm. If our coworkers are only a means to an end, we will use them for their ‘purpose’ then toss them aside or step on them as needed. At school, kids get belittled and bullied because they aren’t human. This goes viral, with videos and posts online and on social media. When we act on our dehumanizing or Othering thoughts, we wind up damaging people and creating victims. This looks like sexual harassment, bullying, belittling comments and treating people like products, or manipulating them for our advantage. At work, people become problems to be solved instead of potential to be realized.
These actions fly in the face of Luke 10 and the Good Samaritan and the call to love our neighbor. It isn’t easy and it isn’t convenient, but it doesn’t matter. It is a command.
Once the actions are present, it develops into our practice and becomes a system-wide issue. You need only look as far as the Pittsburgh Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, or Michigan State University to see how pervasive this illness becomes. I’m afraid those institutions aren’t the only ones affected and we will hear more stories of systemic failure. When Othering gets practiced, it produces not just sickening fruit, but an entire forest of disease.
It would be easy for us to sit on the sideline and comment about how horrible people are. We could easily be enraged at our computer or tv screens and the stories they tell. However, those screens are more like a mirror. It takes bravery to look at what we are seeing and acknowledge it for what it is. We are a society that regularly allows and even celebrates Othering.
Don’t think so? Look at it this way. How are our political parties speaking to one another? What words do our media use to describe opposing viewpoints? Does your Facebook feed reveal a sense of compassion for those involved in the latest moral or ethical debate, or are people engaged in Othering? When was the last time you thought of someone as an object? Before we pass judgment and make an object out of someone, victim or the accused, we have to take a good hard look at ourselves. Jesus cautioned us to that end.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7.3-5
It is easy to do, and it isn’t a far reach to believe that those who disagree with us are hate-filled and fascist; completely Other.
Somehow, some way, this has to stop. Intuitively, we know that women aren’t objects. We know that those around us aren’t our enemy. We know people don’t deserve to be Othered. We know they are living their own stories that are rich with relationships, meaning, and beauty. However, it still occurs.
I believe we have to start thinking, acting and practicing differently. If we are going to stop the cycle of Othering, we have to take ‘every thought captive’ (2 Cor.10.5). When the thoughts enter our minds that make people objects, we have to do the hard work to put a face and a name to them. We have to see them as part of a story, not a moment or a thing. They are part of a story that we get to be a part of. We can either be a villain in their story or someone who makes them better. We can allow our actions toward those we don’t like or agree with to be more dignified. Maybe we make them better by overlooking their behavior or gently bringing correction or a different viewpoint. Perhaps we are the character who instills confidence and belief in them. Whichever way we chose, we chose to play a positive role in their story and allow them to play a positive role in ours.
When we put this into practice, we change not just a person, but a culture. Maybe it is our home or workplace culture, but we begin the shift, one interaction at a time. In this way, we can bring the need for a #MeToo movement to an end. If we stop objectifying one another, we can be people who end Othering and instill dignity with every interaction.