TUESDAY, MARCH 28, 2023
Otherization and Us: What the heck is "theory of mind?"
On the front page of today's New York Times, Oliver Whang explains the concept in a piece about AI.
More specifically, Whang explains the way the term is used by psychologists. For our money, he clouds his explanation a bit—but this is the way he defines the term in his opening paragraphs:
WHANG (3/28/23): Mind reading is common among us humans. Not in the ways that psychics claim to do it, by gaining access to the warm streams of consciousness that fill every individual’s experience, or in the ways that mentalists claim to do it, by pulling a thought out of your head at will. Everyday mind reading is more subtle: We take in people’s faces and movements, listen to their words and then decide or intuit what might be going on in their heads.
Among psychologists, such intuitive psychology—the ability to attribute to other people mental states different from our own—is called theory of mind, and its absence or impairment has been linked to autism, schizophrenia and other developmental disorders. Theory of mind helps us communicate with and understand one another; it allows us to enjoy literature and movies, play games and make sense of our social surroundings. In many ways, the capacity is an essential part of being human.
For our money, Whang clouds his explanation a bit with his reference to "mind reading"—a reference he introduces, then quickly discards.
That said, Whang does describe a basic, if occasional, human capacity—"the ability to attribute to other people mental states different from our own."
He says that this ability helps us understand one another. He even says that this ability "is an essential part of being human."
Friend, do you have that ability? More precisely, are you able to conceive of a world in which other people may have outlooks, understandings and ideas "different from [your] own?"
Along the way, are you able to understand a basic point? Are you able to understand the fact that differences of this type will always exist within human populations—that there will always be people who disagree with you in some way or other?
Are you able to understand that basic fact about life in the human sphere? Or are you inclined to otherize those who present you with the specter of difference? Do you look for ways to suggest that such Others just aren't fully human?
At issue are "the lives of others"—and no, we don't mean the widely acclaimed 2006 German film. At issue is the ability to accept the fact that other people are going to differ from you in some way or other, and that such people have every right to hold such differing views.
Friend, does your so-called lizard brain sometimes direct you to reject that basic understanding? Does it direct you to adopt a different stance? Does it direct you to otherize others?
Otherization is powerful, and it's very common! Last week, we saw former president Donald J. Trump take a very familiar path on the road toward otherization.
Taking a very familiar route, he otherized Alvin Bragg:
WHY WON'T BRAGG DROP THIS CASE? EVERYBODY SAYS THERE IS NO CRIME HERE. I DID NOTHING WRONG! IT WAS ALL MADE UP BY A CONVICTED NUT JOB WITH ZERO CREDIBILITY, WHO HAS BEEN DISPUTED BY HIGHLY RESPECTED PROFESSIONALS AT EVERY TIURN. BRAGG REFUSES TO STOP DESPITE OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. HE IS A SOROS BACKED ANIMAL WHO JUST DOESN'T CARE ABOUT RIGHT OR WRONG NO MATTER HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE HURT. THIS IS NO LEGAL SYSTEM, THIS IS THE GESTAPO, THIS IS RUSSIA OR CHINA, BUT WORSE. DISGRACFUL!
It's one of the most common ways to perform an otherization. The party being otherized is referred to as an animal. This move is performed all the time.
It's easy for us to spot this behavior when it's performed by someone like Trump. Way back in October 1999, the Democratic front-runner for president was otherized in this same way by some in the mainstream press corps.
The otherization began with Jacob Weisberg in Slate. Weisberg is a good, decent person, but this came at the start of his instant appraisal of the first Gore-Bradley debate from New Hampshire:
WEISBERG (10/27/99): Gore arrived on stage like some sort of feral animal who had been locked in a small cage and fed on nothing but focus groups for several days. Upon release, he began to scamper furiously in every direction at once. Assuming his stool 20 minutes before showtime, he volunteered to take extra questions from the audience. At the end of the hour-long non-debate, he promised to stay and answer even more. As of this writing (10:30 p.m.) he's still at it, sitting on the edge of the stage with his wife, talking about human rights in Africa and offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico with a few dozen New Hampshireites.
Gore came across as a kind of manic political vaudevillian. He oozed empathy from every pore, getting all over every questioner like a cheap suit. First he would ask the person about his circumstances, his family, or his job, in a desperate effort to bond. Then he would respond with an explosion of gesticulation, sympathy and agreement...
As we noted at the time, Weisberg's astoundingly negative instant appraisal was widely "sampled" by other major mainstream pundits over the next several days.
It had started with a classic bit of otherization—with the claim that the widely despised Candidate Gore had "scampered furiously" about the stage "like some sort of feral animal."
The takedown proceeded from there. For the record, Democratic Party viewers had scored the debate a draw.
At this juncture, let's state the world's most obvious point:
This astoundingly negative appraisal was the fruit of Gore's earlier failure to denounce President Clinton to the extent that the corporate hacks of our mainstream press had demanded.
In that same month, then again in November, CNN's Howard Kurtz asked two separate panels of mainstream journalists why Gore was being covered in such a negative way by the mainstream press. Everyone agreed that the coverage of Gore had been harshly negative—and everyone pretended that they didn't know why that was!
Last week, Trump described Alvin Bragg as an animal. In Weisberg's construction, Gore was a feral animal, one who had scampered about.
It's like that with otherizations! In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Tutsis had been widely described as "cockroaches." Before long, the murders began. In its most consequential appearances, otherization takes this form.
At any rate, this is one of the common ways we tend to otherize Others. Simply put, the Others simply aren't human. They'll be compared to animals, but also perhaps to machines.
Robotically, mainstream pundits borrowed from what Weisberg had said. In real time, we cited some of the borrowing. Years later, we expanded that work.
On the front page of this morning's Times, Whang discusses the human capacity which gets abandoned, left behind, when otherization starts.
He describes the ability to understand a basic fact about the lives of others. He describes the ability to understand the fact that other people are separate from us, and even different—the ability to understand the fact that other people won't necessarily share every one of our own infallible views.
In all honesty, our blue tribe has a long history of dehumanizing Others. As tribal polarization has increased in recent years, our tribunes have increasingly turned to the pleasures of this approach.
We have a long list of insulting names we're quick to apply to the Others. We're at our happiest when we name-call the Others this way tens of millions at a time.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our tribe is often extremely unimpressive. Reading Petula Dvorak's recent column, and much else in the Washington Post, we've almost begun to wonder if a certain changing of the guard is currently taking place:
Could it be that the Rednecks R Us in the brave new world we're composing? Is it possible that our own blue tribe is adopting this long-despised role?
How about it, friend? Can you "attribute to other people mental states different from [your] own?" More precisely, can you do that without feeling the need to otherize such people?
Are you prepared to inhabit a world which includes the lives of others? It seems to us that our own blue tribe is increasingly challenged on this score.
Otherization has played a key role in the sweep of human history. As we increasingly name-call Others, could it possibly turn out to be that the new Yahoos R Us?
Tomorrow: Love it or leave it, she said