There has been a lot of talk about the “Other” in recent news, academic discourse, and political discourse, in the wake of a recent onslaught of exposure of police brutality, and in the question of gay marriage that has been brought before the Supreme Court. In sociology, the concept of the Other is roughly equivalent to the subset of individuals who fall outside of the power-wielding group of people who have the greatest influence on public policy, social “norms,” and the people and causes who benefit from these policies and norms. In the United States, this influential group is constituted by white, straight males. While discussion of who exactly the Other is has been limited—it is more or less known that if you’re black, if you’re brown, if you’re of any sexual orientation but “straight,” any gender but “male,”—odds are you do not have a significant, direct, legally-recognized hand in shaping and enforcing said policies.
In this article, I will attempt to articulate the confused, common conception of knowledge and action, and why that confused conception plays into the perpetuation of inequality and injustice in our society.
In various social justice movements, we have been lectured to of our need to acknowledge the Other: in our actions, our thoughts, in our votes, and in our dollars spent. The position that I write from is interesting; I say “we” are lectured, yet I do not constitute the “we.” I only fall within one category of the power-wielding subset—white. It appears that I think in terms of a collective—myself and others—but neither myself nor those “others” are ever very clearly defined. While I am aware that by saying “we” I automatically side myself with the power-wielding minority, I am also aware that I and others like me do not constitute that minority. I subconsciously side with power, because I have the privilege to do so.
While often it seems as though the relationship between knowledge and action is clear and linear, it is often anything but. It appears to be a two-step process—we learn, and then subsequently “know” something, and then, on the basis of acquired objectivity (‘knowledge’), we act. While there is nothing incorrect about this conception of the knowledge/action relationship, it is not nearly sufficient to account for the ways and means to describe how the things we know and the things we do come to form relation. Knowledge and action are not simply linear, correlated, and characterized by a cause-and-effect type analysis. We know because we act and learned, just as much as we act because we have learned.
One means of acquiring knowledge—learning through our actions—that is often accounted for in folk terms (learning “the hard way”), often goes unnoticed in other, more socially and scientifically verified fields. So much of the validity that we assign ourselves and others is based solely off of the merit of action, yet in the common conception of the knowledge and action relationship, is not. As a former Psych professor once candidly commented about my Philosophy major, “Right, but what are you actually going to do?” She did not deny that I knew nothing through majoring in an abstract field, but recognized that she valued action over theory. Could I ever really “do” with what I “knew?” Knowing always preceded action.
What I believe that we are getting wrong about the sociological Other is that we currently view the Other as simply existing in the world, as opposed to constituting it. We recognize the existence of the other, and perhaps even act upon the injustice of the Other’s condition. This said, recognition is not enough. Knowledge of the existence and oppression of the Other is not enough. By definition, to exist means to have objective reality or being. To exist is to be recognized. By definition, to constitute means to be a part of a whole. To constitute means to be a part of something in which you play a necessary and active role in the functioning of.
Justice is not present when we simply recognize that there is an Other, nor is it when we commiserate our day-to-day lives taking the other into consideration. Justice comes when our actions are explicitly based upon and hinged upon the very existence of the other, so much so that we would not be able to act without the thought of the Other.
Knowledge alone is not, cannot, and will never be enough for change. Knowledge is substantiated by action, and action substantiated by knowledge.
One suggested solution for a discrepancy in the extent to which we acknowledge those outside of the subset of power, is that we acknowledge their existence in the first place. Before you laugh at the obvious, take the following into consideration: French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre argued that human nature was moldable; that we, through continuous action, shaped the “worlds” in which we belonged, on the basis of acting in such a way that aligns with our “true” selves. Acknowledgment of existence must necessarily come first. Acknowledgement of constitution must come after.
We will get nowhere if we assign the mandatory “existence” of the Other to every individual and every individual’s world. Understanding the objective reality of another person’s existence does nothing for me unless it is included into my subjective; unless it is part of the whole of which I identify myself. Unless it constitutes the world in which, and for which, I act.
If we are lucky, we do not simply exist in someone else’s space; we constitute it. It is when we decide that others do in fact play a role in the functioning and maintenance of our space—not merely exist in it—that we are one step closer to justice. We can acknowledge that the Other exists in our world, but when we realize that our world is and always was constituted of the Other, then, and only then, we can move forward.