Tuesday, August 12, 2014

the other

"Hey, is it true they only have 2 seasons in Canada?” “Yup, 6 months of winter and 6 months of poor snowmobiling.” Americans love mocking Canada. It’s a pleasant American pastime to poke fun at our quirky Canadian parka-wearing neighbors who talk nonstop a-boot hockey, eh? Part of defining yourself and your community comes from defining yourself in opposition to an Other. Some of this is useful and helps us carve out a unique identity, but lately I’ve encountered too many situations in which the Other becomes a target of hatred, and things start to get out of hand. 

I’m lucky to know a talented guy, director Tomer Sinai, who captures some of this sentiment in his film “Baby Steps,” which just had its world premiere at the Chain NYC Film Festival. The protagonist, a man in NYC, struggles with revealing his gay identity at a job interview. The fear of being the Other is so great that ultimately he feels the need to deny what makes him “different” in hopes of winning a job. What Sinai captures so elegantly is the irony of how we worry and focus so much on the small things that divide us, when so many other qualities and experiences bring us together.

Furthermore, Sinai was born and raised in Israel. He has personally witnessed the hatred that has evolved between two communities that at their hearts are not so different. One response to the ongoing conflict in that region has been the call by some activists for a "cultural boycott" of any individual or product originating in Israel. Accordingly, there are activists who would encourage people to boycott Sinai's films, regardless of how valuable they are to liberalism and progressive causes like gay-rights, purely because of his ties to a country whose actions they oppose. When we demonize an entire community like this, it’s easier than acknowledging all of the complexities involved.

We’ve seen this happening with immigration, where people obsess over who “belongs” within our American community and who does not. I still react negatively when people insist that everyone in the United States speak English, and though I hope that everyone has the opportunity to learn it if they wish, it doesn’t stop me from seeing someone as American if they do not. For some, it’s too hard to identify the boundaries of our “American” identity if there are enough differences that we can’t easily distinguish ourselves from the Other. The irony being that within any given community, if there aren’t enough differences, we seek to create them ourselves. And we can’t help but laugh when we see it in action, watching people align themselves within retirement communities (think Seinfeld’s Del Boca Vista) or sports fans fighting to the death over their favorite teams. 

Where does the good-natured competition veer into the malicious? Some of it is clearly historical, making it easy for some countries to be happy neighbors while others become mortal enemies. But what turns a friendly rivalry into a passionate hatred? I’m sure that some of it comes from fear - people fear differences and that can take on vast cultural proportions. But I think a lot of it just comes from people lacking good, solid, positive things in their own lives. It’s generally not the well-off, happily employed people that take the Giants-Dodgers rivalry to violent ends. People who are suffering in some way (emotionally, economically, culturally) are more likely to have existential anger that’s easiest to channel into simple, clear-cut conflict. Which makes a lot of sense and ultimately puts fault in those whose money/religion/politics excludes and oppresses others. Which is why my proposed solution to issues like the Israeli-Palestinian one is to flood a community with resources to defray their anger in the first place, and not give them an easy target for hatred.

Humans naturally align themselves into communities. We give those communities names and have instant pride in them, whether the community is the country of multiple generations of one’s family, the neighborhood you just moved to, or your department within your workplace. Mostly random, mostly artificial, yet very real to all of us. When people have basic freedoms, as simple as food and water or the right to identify as gay, it seems like friendly rivalries are less likely to spiral into international conflicts.