Ahoy, mateys. Here be some spoilers.
I’ve been watching a lot of Lost lately.
It took me years to finally give in and watch this show that took America by the throat for six years. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hooked. Yep, that sharp barb of a spine is wedged firmly into the side of my cheek, and I’m its captive.
One thing I think the show does remarkably well is show a concept that I’ve learned about in several of my university courses. It’s a concept that governs foreign policy, human reaction and interaction, and fear.
The Mysterious Other
When Oceanic flight 815 crashes on the Island, there are seventy-one survivors of the initial crash. Those in the main portion of the fuselage and those in the tail section experience a very, very different situation as they arrive on the Island — but both encounter the Island’s previous inhabitants.
The survivors of Oceanic 815 are not alone.
Aside from everything else going on (weird smoky foghorn monsters and polar bears notwithstanding), their primary concern shifts to The Others. Them.
This simple language is as real as it gets. Back when all humans were tribal, stranger danger was more than just a joke adults use to make fun of kids. Our brains build models and make predictions based on our previous experiences. When we meet someone new, our brain does the same thing depending on our initial encounters — and then makes predictions about the possibilities of further encounters based on its assessment of that first.
What does that mean?
It means that…say you crash on a deserted island. At least you think it’s deserted. You’re just trying to survive. Find water. Make shelter. Get food. But then three of your number vanish in the middle of the night — and one of your group kills two of his or her attackers.
Then the next time, they take nine more.
Maybe they come after a pregnant woman and infiltrate your camp to get to her. Kidnap her and leave her friend dangling from a tree.
None of these experiences could be counted as positive.
But they shape expectation.
There could very well be good people among this group. Moral people. Friendly people. But your first impressions of them have been full of terror and heartache.
It also doesn’t take a personal encounter for your brain to start building expectations — all it takes is someone telling you a story. A professor of mine once explained it like this: for each group of people we encounter, we have a bag. The first thing we learn about them goes in the bag first — it could be a personal experience, a story, hearsay, something you read.
Let’s say you heard about the Razorback Clan being cannibals. Yikes. In the bag.
The next thing you hear about them goes in next. Someone tells you they snatch children. Double yikes. In the bag.
You meet someone down by the stream, and she helps you catch the biggest fish of your life, cooks it with you, and gives you a bracelet before leaving. You ask her where she’s from. She says the Razorback Clan, smiles, and bails. WTF. You’ve heard two terrible things about this clan, but she was super lovely. In the bag.
Later your clan goes to war. Three children disappear. There’s a chance they were playing in the woods and got trampled by a moose, but something clicks in your mind as if it’s flopping around in your bag. You heard that the Razorback Clan snatches children. It must be them. So you join the army and hunt them into oblivion. You never find the children, and you never witness any signs of cannibalism. But you still have a certain bracelet and the smell of fish in your nostrils every time you look at it.
That is a pretty simple story. If you change “Razorback Clan” to “Jews” and set it in 1939 in Germany, this story suddenly becomes all too real. How we learn about people, how we decide how we act — it’s all based on what goes in that bag. Often based on what goes in that bag first.
While our brains classifying the Other as dangerous is a survival mechanism, no survival mechanism should be accepted without questioning.
The Others. Them.
Humans historically like to surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, act like us, believe like us. When we are attacked (or even hear rumors of an attack with origins so ancient they crumble out of your mouth like dust), that sends our brains into protection mode. And protection mode isn’t always connected to logic mode.
Garion: “Good and evil?”
Belgarath: “Too complicated. I prefer us and them.”
There’s that word again. Them.
When we believe our safety is at stake, that’s what it becomes. Us and them. Even if we are, to be precise, full of shit.
It’s the perception that fuels this phenomenon.
Here’s a quote from Mr. Eko in Lost that sums it up pretty well:
You live in a world where good and evil sit very far apart. And that is not the real world.
One of the reasons why The Others in Lost are so effective is because they are painted in gray. Even though you don’t see much light in them the first couple seasons, it starts getting hinted at. Whispered. The same is true in other stories — I’ve always found the most effective villains to be those whose motivations you understand even if you disagree with their methods, those whose lives hold something to be pitied, those whose futures could have been different if they’d just made different choices.
And in life, you’re hard pressed to find someone wholly bad, and there is no group of people on this green earth that fits that description. Not even mostly bad. People are shades of gray just like fictional characters. (50 shades, to be exact……just kidding. I’m kidding. Tough room.)
This mysterious Other? Never that mysterious if you take the time to ignore your bag and learn for yourself.
In what ways have you seen this principle at work? (Hint: think back approximately 11 years.) When have you seen it challenged? How can people fight against the impulse to alienate the Other?
- To Encounter the Different (rinth89.wordpress.com)
- What Happened to the Passengers of Flight 815? (slate.com)