How Can We Understand Our Fear of the Other?

Science fiction and fairy tales teach us about hatred and prejudice.

Posted Mar 11, 2016

In her new book, Uprooted, Naomi Novik, author of the critically acclaimed Temeraire novels, offers a great contribution to the fantasy/science fiction genre. I am not going to review the book here, except to say that it is a wonderfully engaging read, although sometimes more than a bit gruesome.

What I’d like to consider here is the way that Novik untangles and brings us directly into an exploration of a complex and troubling element of human psychology: the ways we hate others for doing to us exactly what we would like to do (and sometimes do) to them.

Her powerful and at times quite disturbing novel, like fairy tales throughout history, sheds light on and helps to explain why political and military leaders who nurture prejudice and fan the flames of hatred can quickly become so incredibly and disturbingly popular.

While reading Novik’s book for pleasure, I was also reading two articles by the psychologist Melanie Suchet for classes that I was teaching. The material of the articles wove in beautifully with Novik’s fantasy, and I found myself stopping often as I read one to re-examine something in the other.

Briefly, in Uprooted, the human cruelty and power-mongering of a single man leads to revenge, corruption, and hatred and eventually to bloody wars in which thousands of soldiers and civilians engage in the brutal destruction of one another and the countries and leaders they are loyally, albeit mistakenly following.

Novik beautifully and terribly colors in the passions, the love, and the fears that feed the terrible hatred of others because they look or sound different from oneself and one’s community, or sometimes because they are wearing different clothing or simply live on the other side of an imaginary border. 

As in any good fairy tale, there are good guys and bad guys; but although there are some monstrously bad creatures (most of them human) and some basically good ones, Novik doesn’t make anyone pure in either direction. No purely good, no purely bad.

And, I think, this is reality. Basically good people lose sight of their own values or of the truth of others’ humanity, because of bad things that go on in their lives.

This is what Suchet writes about as well. Writing about a client’s difficult relationship with a boyfriend, she says:

She hated herself for needing him. She complained he was not emotionally accessible and she felt constantly being pulled in to be hurt again. Over time she described a turbulent relationship that fluctuated as to who was being hurtful to whom.

Suchet offers us a way of thinking about the psychology of confusing and painful interactions that bring out a desire in each of us to hurt another person. Often, Suchet says, that desire to hurt comes from a feeling of having been injured oneself.

One of my favorite psychoanalytic writers, Heinz Kohut, says much the same thing. Anger, he tells us, is often a reaction to feeling injured, either physically or emotionally. It is a way of repairing damaged self-esteem, which makes us feel weak and vulnerable. “See,” our rage tells us and the world around us, “I’m not weak, I’m strong!”

Anger offers a sense of strength and power. But the power is often short-lived, because anger stimulates responsive anger, if not immediately, then sooner or later. Hurt breeds revenge and revenge breeds further hurt. Novik illustrates this vicious cycle in her world of wizards and corruption, and Suchet demonstrates it in her powerful and moving work as a Jewish psychotherapist with a Palestinian woman.

Suchet writes of a painful interaction with her client.

“Palestinians die all the time. Nobody seems to care about them.” I nodded my head. I understood that. “I hate American foreign policy and I hate all Israelis and all Zionists, and maybe all Jews too,” she said.

Fighting her first reaction to the statement, Suchet works hard to understand the many emotional meanings of this client’s attack, and the meanings of her own reactions as well. After much work, she writes, she came to understand that what they both felt contained the client’s “history and my history and the histories of nations, of broken bonds and damaged victims suddenly all present in the space of a fleeting second.”

As Novik’s heroine, Agnieszka, finally understands the core of the corruption that has led to two nations destroying one another, she says,

“It wasn’t that I felt squeamish about killing her. The Wood-queen deserved death and horror; she’d sowed it and tended it and harvested it by the bushel and wanted more…I hated her; I wanted her to burn, the way so many of the corrupted had burned…But wanting cruelty felt like another wrong answer in an endless chain.”

She learns, finally, the source of all of the endless cruelty and destruction.

“Our people were alone here a long time. We began to forget how to be people. We dwindled away little by little. The Wood-queen thought they could teach us to remember. She thought we could be renewed, and teach them in turn; we could give each other life. But they were afraid. They wanted to live, they wanted to grow stronger, but they didn’t want to change.”

For both Suchet and Novik, the fear of difference, the dread of being something other than what we have always been, is the source of much of the anger and destruction in our lives.

So how do we deal with this normal, very human fear of difference and change?

In their own ways, both Suchet and Novik suggest that the best, in fact perhaps the only, way to do so is to find some way to recognize not only differences, but similarities between ourselves and others, and in particular, perhaps, between ourselves and those we consider our enemies.

The differences don’t disappear. They are part – but only part – of what defines us. The similarities define us as well.

Suchet ends her article with a discussion of the philosopher Emannuel Levinas,  a Jew and French citizen who was captured by the Nazis and spent 5 years as a prisoner of war in a German labor camp.  Levinas’ subsequent life work was an attempt to understand the Other, what some psychoanalysts call the “not me,” the part of someone we simply cannot identify with. I am undoubtedly oversimplifying here, because I don’t understand all of the complex aspects of this construct. But according to Suchet, Levinas says that the Other can be understood by looking at his or her face.

I take that to mean that when we see someone else’s humanness, even if we don’t feel that we are the same as they, even when we don’t respect or like their difference, we are less likely to engage in destruction of their selfhood; and they will not need to destroy us in revenge.

Novik’s fairy tale ends with Agnieszka’s understanding something of the Wood-queen’s humanness.

“She’d killed, and she’d come here with her hands bloody, to sleep with her people at last. But she’d remembered the wrong things, and forgotten too much. She’d remembered how to kill and how to hate, and she’d forgotten how to grow.”

Although she was in the process of helping the Wood-queen to die, Agniezska says,

“We looked at one another. For a moment, through the winding smoke between us, I might have been the daughter she’d hoped for. She might have been my teacher and my guide. We might never have been enemies at all.”

As always, I would like to know your thoughts.

copyright@fdbarth2016

References:

Naomi Novik (2016). Uprooted. Del Rey Publishers.

Melanie Suchet, Ph.D. (2010). Face to Face. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 20:158-171