The other side of otherness

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

A recent community engagement seminar hosted by UNISA’s Institute for Dispute Resolution in Africa (IDRA) challenged academics to fully appreciate the wealth of knowledge and life experience available at grassroots level.

During the keynote address by UK based researcher, Dr Margaret Greenfields, an armchair approach to problem solving was soundlessly critiqued whilst she highlighted the presence of ‘hidden transcripts’ to be found when engaging with communities in an ethical, sincere and unassuming manner. Academics were reminded that South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world and was challenged to break down the walls of isolation and insulation through engagement with communities in a symbiotic manner.

Critical reflection
The seminar led me to critically reflect on my role as an academic in a practical counter-human trafficking project that I am responsible for and reminded me of John Maxwell’s sentiment that human nature seems to endow us with the ability to size up everybody in the world except ourselves. Contrasting concepts such as ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘here’ and ‘there’, ‘white’ and ‘black’ echoed in my mind as I pondered some current meta-discourses dominating local and international platforms. I felt a sense of sadness at the inability of our global society to fully acknowledge the destruction and paralysis perpetuated by viewing ‘otherness’ as a ‘half-empty’ glass of murky water rather than appreciating it as a ‘half-full’ glass of spring water.  

In a text on qualitative research Willig (2008:52-53) highlights that it is not at all surprising that different people can, and do, perceive and experience (what appears to be) the ‘same’ environment in radically different ways. Willig continues by arguing that a particular experience or appearance may vary depending on the perceiver’s location, context, angle of perception and mental orientation (e.g. desires, wishes, judgements, emotions, aims and purposes).

Different perspective
Willig’s argument made perfect sense after considering a previous article I wrote referring to the story of a rat that gnawed at the control panel cables of a plane whilst the pilot was airborne and two hours away from his next landing field. In the story the rat is depicted as a life threatening rodent with the ability to cause malfunction to the plane and imminent death to the pilot. Parallels were drawn between the story of the rat and our human inclination to anxiety – something that causes paralysis and robs us of the opportunity to experience God’s divine power and supernatural ability. Interestingly, however, a different perspective on rats was offered during the community engagement seminar when a speaker made reference to the role of rats in Mozambique as life-saving heroes. Trained rats are used in an innovative manner to locate and demine large areas scattered with deadly landmines planted during periods of conflict and civil unrest. The Mozambican rats reminded me of an anonymous inscription I once read on a painting: “Everything comes from somewhere. Every object means something to someone. There is always a story to tell…..”

Seltzer-Kelly, Cinnamon, Cunningham, Gurland, Jones & Toth (2011:17) captures the essence of ‘otherness’ in their discussion of inter-subjectivity. The authors highlight that  

“…each person can come to a mutual understanding not only of the subjectivity of others, but that one’s own self is an “Other” in other people’s experience. Each person, that is, recognizes that he or she is both a subject of one’s own perspective and an Other in every other person’s perspective. We are all subjective and therefore subject to bias and insensitivity towards others, but since we all are subjective, we can establish a basis upon which meanings may be communicated and shared even though each other person’s perspective is fundamentally irreconcilable with our own.”

Embracing diversity and ‘otherness’ is by no means a natural human response. An even more stringent test is to fully comprehend that it is in fact possible to benefit from one another’s differences. 

As Christians, we are reminded that we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and are uniquely and wonderfully made with a universal element of ‘otherness’. To those who do not know Christ, our ‘otherness’ can translate into an understandable language for communicating the Gospel.

There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy. —  Mark Twain


Willig, C. 2008. Introducing Qualitative Research in Psychology: Adventures in Theory and Method. 2nd Edition. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill.

A. 2013. DNA Seltzer-Kelly, D.L., Cinnamon, S., Cunningham, C.A., Gurland, S.T., Jones, K. & Toth, S.L. 2011. (Re) Imagining Teacher Preparation for Conjoint Democratic Inquiry in Complex Classroom Ecologies. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 8 (1): 5-27.

Rats: Scratch and sniff landmine detection see

Comments are closed.