I Am Not My “ Others “ Keeper

Joel B.levine MD

Over the past 2 years, distance has become both a measure and metaphor. Virtue has been found in separation. I have the right idea, you do not. I am doing the right thing, you are not. Not only am I better and more moral than you but you are less than me.

Sharing animus for others has become an affirming act. You can define people broadly or narrowly. Define them by one thing or many. It can be charming and trivial, as the historic separation in New York between Dodger and Yankee fans. It can be tribal, color or religion. And, if you really keep sliding backwards, it can be by seeing a heart of darkness in the other.

“ Otherism” is as old as humanity. Millenia of grotesque blood letting were justified by it. Even something as inherently beneficent as Christianity was riven by it. “ Otherism” justified every cruelty, every excess, all in pursuit of vanquishing the “ other” and establishing as close to purity as one could get. But vigilance is required for “ others” are always latent, restlessly asleep in the genome of the group, society, or country. The “ Other” is a perennial in the garden of human history.

Before the birth or rebirth of “ otherism,” the litany of historic slaughters seem mysterious. There is little appeal nor popular justification for “ elimination,” for “purge”. We simply forget that the bonds holding an ethical society are just “words,” i.e., tolerance, prudence, fairness, balance, modesty and , most central, empathy. Each word is a rosary bead requiring willful adherence, repetition and , most of all, belief. When the belief in their value declines, the centripetal forces inherent in challenging and difficult events take hold.

Make no mistake about it. Being part of the “ we” is a compelling fever dream for a society. A common enemy makes you uncommon. You can be the Napoleon of your basement, Robespierre in a robe. A small , narrow, and tepid life never felt so good. Once banded against the “ Other,” all other measures of purpose can gracefully be put away. Your sins are forgiven, your failings made resolute. When a society does not cherish the universality of Michelangelo, the beauty of light in Van Gogh, the word heart beats of Langston Hughes, it become frivolous, proudly adolescent and eventually corrupted.

Corrupted in its root , to break”and we are nearly broken. Progressively uncivil acts are justifiable, punishments are rational, adherence is the only test. When the group against the “ other” gets large enough, there is the emerging sense of inevitability. Life without the “ other” just feels right. Ask Pol Pot.



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Joel B. Levine MD

Professor of Medicine , essayist, practitioner, basic research and education ; reflections on medicine and modern society