Sunday 3 March 2024

A challenging tension

I have been reflecting on an interesting tension, which I can see no obvious way to resolve. So, as I often do in such situations, I thought I'd write about it, both to clarify my own thoughts and in the hope that others might be interested and might have insights to share. 

So here's the thing. One of the issues that the current enthusiasm for Diversity and Inclusion as values is addressing, is the phenomenon known as 'othering.' (I know, my linguistic sensitivities don't like it either, but it seems to be the vogue term). This is the process of identifying someone or some group as outsiders, often accompanied by negative stereotyping,  For a full (and fairly typical) account, see here. Clearly, this can be problematic, whether in an organisational context, when it will impede working relationships and therefore organisational effectiveness, and also at a societal level, when it can lay the foundations for prejudicial discrimination, and in extremis, de-humanisation and persecution. 

One of the responses to this is to lay great stress on our common humanity, and to expand the bandwidth of what we perceive as normal, so that we do not see people who are different from us as abnormal, or 'other.' A fairly common example is when people say, with regard to Autism Spectrum Disorders, ' Of course, we're all on the spectrum somewhere.' Yet this well-intentioned attempt to normalise ASD can meet a very angry response. Some people with ASD, and those who advocate for them, point out that this approach has several unhelpful, unintended consequences.

One is that it risks minimising the very real difficulties some people face. For example, I am not particularly socially skilled, particularly in unstructured situations. But to attribute that to my being 'a bit on the spectrum' seems to belittle the very significant difficulties some of the people I know with autism encounter in such contexts. They (and I) would argue it is a difference in kind, not just of degree.

A second and related risk is that it may obscure the need for reasonable adjustments at work and in broader society to enable the full and fair participation.

So that's the tension: how do we sufficiently normalise difference that we reduce the risk of othering, whilst maintaining sufficient and useful distinctions, so as to ensure that differing needs are fully understood and met?


Images: Tug-of-war generated by 123RF; Autism Spectrum seen repeatedly on Linked In, but I haven't found an attribution or originator: happy to credit if anyone tells me!

1 comment:

  1. This whole business of 'othering' and ' normalising' is one of the many losses we suffer from losing real communities and living isolated lives even in densely populated areas. The 'village idiot' and the local witch might have been recognised as different but they still had their place and function in the community. I wonder if we should leave the new terminology aside and remember to see people as people, neighbours, colleagues, strangers, but always people. I'm sure you've found in your work that once you actually communicate with people , however different or ' other's they may be, there is always a link or level at which the difference slides away end co communication happens. Labelling conditions can be very useful.and helpful but sometimes it really impedes progress. Each person in each situation is different. Clear as mud?!