14. The Other

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“L’enfer, c’est les autres” Jean-Paul Sartre

For all their difficulty, human relations enhance Imprecision. We begin life believing that all external events are generated by ourselves, so “Me” is all it takes until we lose control of the breast or bottle that feeds Me when I want. When this is withheld for the first time it is a cruel shock.

Such contradictory behaviour deeply disorders my world view. At first my ego cannot believe that the breast or bottle is refusing to obey my whim but repeated absences demonstrate that it must indeed have a mind of its own and so the existence of some Other is finally confirmed, a binary moment you might say, an event shared by all humans, universal to us all without distinction of culture or belief to remain one of the most defining events of our early existence and of the most salutary.


But of what use is this to the Imprecise?

My infant brain, superbly equipped with the power of rapid development, spends some time integrating this realisation into my vision of myself where I have no other choice but to conclude that the world must be peopled by Other “Me’s”. The way out of this dilemma is to develop that single human characteristic that distinguishes from all other species: empathy; that ability to integrate this Other into the current definition of Me. And so we develop a social skill Piaget called “displacement” which puts our Self into the shoes of the Other, an absolutely essential skill for the health of all my subsequent social interactions. But as always with Imprecision, its fundamental truth does not lie in the surface reality. The real magic of this acceptance of the Other is the fascinating power we develop to pretend to be them, and so begins a long apprenticeship to this important skill that often starts during the playground games of children.

That apprenticeship is far from simple: the need to comply with one’s peers at this age is intense and the need to belong pressing. When children feel some lack in one of their own they force open the wound of difference until it hurts. Inflicting such pain on a non-compliant member of the group helps assert my own banality, where any difference to the group must be removed, even if invisibility threatens. However this power of “displacement” does expand my world, and my ability to respond socially and emotionally. The deeply disturbing and negative interventions of the Other thus complete the construction of my social being, giving me the capacity to understand the Other as if it was my own person and finally able to exploit collegiate activities for the common good.

If I retain only one thing from Piaget’s work, this is the big idea. Out of a profoundly disturbing and negative intervention by the Other, I can construct a complete social being, capable of understanding another Self as if it were my own self.

A story…


At my secondary school there was a boy with a Hapsburg jaw, a condition where the bottom teeth meet or protrude beyond the top set. This made it difficult for him to pronounce certain letters and so he became the butt of our own fears of not conforming.

I suffered from no such visible uniqueness yet at primary school I also had been the scapegoat. I never did find out quite what it was that attracted the disdain of fellow pupils but I suspect that one part which exacerbated my problem lay in my response to aggression. When I was being bullied at school I used immediately to sit on the ground. Subordinate animals do this all the time but I did not know that then. This one gesture turned me into a mockery but it was a ploy that held many advantages: it removed all signals of confrontation by literally lowering my status in full view of any public watching let alone the bully; it removed me from immediate danger of injury as it was impossible to knock me further to the ground, making it a good self-preservation tactic too; it also paradoxically raised my self-esteem since I thus outfoxed my aggressors at least intellectually by removing myself from the fight, thereby knocking the wind out of their sails.

Yet it kept me mortally locked into the role of victim: too unconfident to assume control, my only choice was to relinquish it.

Read on: 15. The Dialectic

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