Overcoming Otherness

Thanks to Amy’s love of art and The Art Book Fair at NGV, I’ve been introduced to the Assemble Papers (www.assemblepapers.com.au) a twice yearly publication and a regular e-letter, focusing on the exploration of small footprint living across art, design, architecture, urbanism, the environment and finance.

I’m already fascinated by two articles! The first explores the rise of collaborative consumption and the other, our national identity and the concept of otherness. The theme is explored through an exhibition called The Other Hemisphere, which took place last year in Ventura Lambrate. I’m drawn to the first article as it explores a community response to modern society. The second for its focus on the experience of being other.

The feeling of being other is closely linked with our experience of belonging. In Design by the Lucky Country (http://assemblepapers.com.au/2014/04/10/design-by-the-lucky-country/) author Henrietta Zeffert is an Australian expat living in London, she describes her sense of otherness being an antipodean abroad. “I am seen as other, as a foreigner and a non-citizen, and I am other in my own eyes as an immigrant from my native land. I have observed a similar discomfiture in friends who wrigglingly describe themselves as expats and emigres: words that flash-fires for self-identified otherness.”

The theme of other resonates deeply with me, and perhaps like you I remember times when I felt excluded, on the edge, sharing a perspective with others but not quite being on the same page, or simply not being part of the club. Even in ones own country and community these feelings of exclusion and otherness can quickly spiral to isolation and disconnection. A few years ago I attended a forum of social service workers and the facilitator asked us as table groups to name the single biggest issue we came across in our work. Without exception every table reported back that the biggest issue they encountered was people suffering the effects of isolation or you could say being other. Those effects include loneliness, depression, anxiety and a host of other mental and physical issues.

Of course otherness goes further as I become aware of those experiencing homelessness, those living in boarding houses, refugees and asylum seekers locked up in detention, indigenous men and women being forced off their land, those suffering the effects of terrible earthquakes in Nepal. A challenge for us as a community is will the other be on our radar or will we individually and as a society, simply push them to one side and go on to buy our Louis Vuitton or Armani.

I’ve attended a forum on imprisonment, naming the state of play around levels of incarceration, the causes and response. In the forum I came across the term circuits of exclusion. Many in the prison system come from histories of abuse, self-medication, low levels of education and so on. These things become their identity and then get translated to the next generation. We are now seeing third and fourth generations of families with members ending up in crime and in prison. The point being made by members of the panel was that prison has no hope of breaking this cycle of poverty and despair. The only thing that will make a difference is a change in attitude from all of us that says these people aren’t other. They are part of my community, my people. A member of the panel suggested that we need to create communities of care for ex-prisoners, helping them to own the belief that they have done their time and that they can move on to, with help discover and live a legitimate future.

The idea of the community working together against otherness, points to the second article in the Assemble Papers. Tim Riley writes on crowd funding and co-housing arguing that these trends are leading the way in the rise of collaborative consumption. Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers in their book, What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, have written on this trend. For them collaborative consumption is a model through which people can share resources without giving up ‘cherished personal freedoms, or sacrificing their lifestyle.’

Botsman and Rogers See that this trend is driven by people searching for more simplicity, transparency and participation in their lives. Old forms of collectives are being reinvented into ‘valuable forms of collaboration and community.’ At the centre of this movement is:

  • The internet and its ability to bring social networks together
  • A renewed belief in the importance of community
  • Pressing environmental concerns
  • Cost consciousness

Botsman and Rogers are hopeful seeing a trend that society is beginning to shift its focus from hyper-consumption, recognising the limitations of this and moving to a form of consumerism that encourages sharing, aggregation, openness and co-operation.

That all sounds good, but whilst a slightly more open approach is being advocated for, a desire for community beginning to be sought and actualised, will there be room for the other?

Central to the Christian faith is the concept of the other. Firstly that God is other, but yet seeks connection with people. I guess you could say he desires an aggregated life. Then throughout the bible there is the motif of embracing the stranger or the other, looking out for them and making sure that they can participate in the community socially and economically. As I read Riley and his article based on the work of Botsman and Rogers I can’t help but think of the description of the first ‘Followers of the Way’ in Acts. They held everything in common, sold their possessions, gave their money to the other, or the poor and experienced the joy of a common connection and bond of faith.

I don’t sense Botsman and Rogers advocating that we go that far, in fact they don’t see the need for us to give up our freedom, we can have it all, community and freedom. But I fear this is an exclusive community that will reinforce the circuit of exclusion. Our net gets slightly wider than me and my castle and those who reside in its walls. However for those outside the walls I suspect they will continue to be ‘other.’

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