A donkey and an elephant sit on pedestals to debate problems at hand. But there is no debate. The elephant insults the donkey and his ideologies, calling voters to elect the elephant simply because he isn’t a donkey. The donkey — whether knowing or not — succumbs to a similar, but more diplomatic strategy stating that current problems stem from the elephant being an elephant. Rather than focusing on the debate, the audience ironically fixates on a fly. This is the manifestation of the “Other Than” principal, in real time, in the recent U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates.

This principle can best be understood through restructuring Mead’s concept of the “Generalized Other.” Mead, a social scientist who studied symbolic interactionism — a framework defining society as everyday interactions — uses this term to describe an individual conforming to society’s expectations. When a person enters, for example, a grocery store, they conform to expected interactions of their environment. They follow the aisle arrows, wait in line to checkout and have civil conversation with the grocer. Everyone subconsciously conforms to Mead’s “Generalized Other.”

For the purposes of Mead, the term suffices, but for the purpose of the United States’ dichotomized political system, the term can be restructured. The “Generalized Other” then becomes a ploy to label “adversaries” as opposed to ourselves. We label another with our conceptual framework of their identity and make assumptions of what their character ought to be. The “Generalized Other” has become a means of asserting dominance over differing perspectives to the point of condemnation. The “Generalized Other” in our current sense thwarts the potential for healthy conversation, never truly “hearing out” a formal argument. The result: extremist polarization. The consequence: stifling educating conversation.

The “Generalized Other” requires a label for the adversary — often a complete stranger. This label can be thought of as a scheme of “Other Than.” They are opposite me. I am right and they are wrong. There is no nuance, no conversation, no debate. Black or white, red or blue, elephant or donkey. This is succumbing to a state of “Other Than.”

The polarizing effect of “Other Than” cripples the advancement of both the individual and society. An “Other Than” complex stems from charged emotions that promote group polarization and belief perseverance. These cognitive actions contradict human nature and expectations for our youth. Human development is wrought with exposure to novel experiences. If it weren’t, the transition from infancy to adulthood would never be possible! 

The development for language and walking are two simple examples. Similarly, the education system teaches grade-schoolers to consider opposing perspectives respectfully and inclusively: “Allow Johnny to finish his thought”; “Include Angelique during recess”; “Apologize to Jamal for raising your voice.” We teach our youth to never deny another dignity and respect, yet we do not hold ourselves or our leaders to the same standard. The problem is not necessarily the ideas. There are lessons to be learned from both sides of the political spectrum, but the inhibitor of growth is conforming to the “Other Than” complex.

Some might say that civil conversation with particular groups is impossible. This is a valid point that I agree with. Consider an LGBTQ+ person conversing with a homophobic person. Civil conversation can never occur because in many of these conversations, the stakes are different — it becomes a case of ideology versus identity — and we cannot expect someone to compromise on their identity. The caveat for escaping the “Other Than” complex is flexibility undergirded with an open-mindedness that attempts to understand the opposing perspective. In the example above, that is not possible on both sides. The “Other Than” complex applies best to concepts that do not involve identity but rather, topics where an individual has the flexibility to challenge their preconceived notions of another.  

I wager that the average American is displeased with the status of the country and embarrassed by the lack of respect and tomfoolery seen in the presidential and vice-presidential debates. The only solution is change at the community level that manifests at the state level. Then, and only then, will a change at the federal level be possible. America was conceived by individuals and supported by communities. In order to rid our country of the “Other Than” complex, we have to demonstrate our expectations of dignity and respect in our own lives. Only then can the public hold America’s leaders accountable to the standard we hold each other to: civil conversation and dignity for humanity.

JOSEPH WILLIAMS is an MPH candidate at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact him at joseph.williams@yale.edu.