Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died in December at age 90, is remembered for his leadership in bringing reconciliation to South Africa after 46 years of apartheid rule. Tutu is an exemplar of the voices who raise the moral imperative we need “to resist divisive structures,” according to T. Richard Snyder, in “A Future Without Walls: Confronting Our Divisions.” Snyder, a professor emeritus of theology and ethics at New York Theological Seminary, is a leader in the restorative justice movement in Maine.

Snyder’s premise is that we live in a divided world and things are getting worse: “working together for the common good has given way to unfeigned distrust and hatred.” People different from us are treated as the “other.”

The concepts of “other” or “othering” are at the heart of the book, and Snyder defines them as treating persons as ‘those people,’ and considering them along a range of negativity, from being inferior to being “not even human.” This creates “an unbridgeable gap between oneself and the Other.” These gaps are consequential because, in Snyder’s view, a dividing wall between self and Others results in “physical or psychological violence.”

Snyder provides examples of people treated as other, including Black Americans, women, Jews, prisoners, Muslims, Asian Americans, members of the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, people with disabilities and First Peoples. Similarly, he provides a history of othering, beginning with the Code of Hammurabi way back in 1754 BCE to the present. In each case, his reach is sweeping, even if that means the depth of coverage is truncated.

Othering can take many forms, and one way to “other” a group is to demonize them. Snyder argues that doing so creates conditions to allege that “they are fundamentally evil and must be exorcised or destroyed.” Othering includes characterizing the others as animals, profiling, shunning, bullying or ethnic cleansing. Othering increasingly takes the form of tribalism in politics, and Snyder critiques both conservatives and liberals for “othering” those with different views.

To reduce othering, people must listen to and understand what the other side is saying – even if they continue to disagree fundamentally with those points of view. It remains to be seen how this approach can be applied in the context of viral social media acrimony and a culture that often excludes opposing views.

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Othering ultimately results in physical or psychological violence, of which Snyder provides many examples, including mass incarceration, terrorism and violence. He also discusses the violence of war as an example in which the “enemy” is treated as “other.”

At this point, Snyder seemingly detours and questions whether America’s participation in World War II was a “just war.” Here, Snyder sails into deep historical and moral waters and his brief coverage of this question, which may be more suited to a separate book, feels thin and underdeveloped. It often seems as though this 244-page book is too small a platform to cover all that Snyder, a wise, deep thinker, wants to say.

In a chapter on voices of moral imperative, he reviews the work of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, biblical prophets, voices of women and the role of public intellectuals, who provide moral leadership to help bridge our differences.

At times, Snyder’s extended list of exemplars may conflict with acknowledging their relative importance. For example, he spends almost as much time in one paragraph on Gestalt therapy as he does in one paragraph on the UN Declaration of Human Rights – one of the most important vehicles for the promotion of human rights in world history.

In his last chapter, Snyder describes the restorative justice movement, in which “the perpetrator is brought face to face with their victim,” typically in “circles,” to share their experiences. While restorative justice may work in the relatively easy case of property damage that Snyder briefly described in this chapter, it feels naïve and inappropriate as a solution for interpersonal violence, where a face to face meeting could put undue pressure on the victim or re-traumatize them. Again, the large number of examples listed in the book seems to have resulted in diluted treatment.

Snyder concludes this chapter by suggesting that revolution, including “violent overthrow,” should be considered “as a last resort” to address the “forces of oppression.” He concedes that revolutions don’t always produce the intended results and that “the costs of both nonviolent and violent revolutions can be enormous. … The cost in lives is often immense and always tragic.”

This end-of-book shift from a focus on ways to reduce othering based on the teaching of moral exemplars, to suggesting violent overthrow to dismantle oppressive systems feels disjointed. The causes of othering and divisiveness seem to have shifted among “forces of oppression,” “divisive structures” and the conduct of individuals and groups acting outside of formal structures. Moreover, violent overthrown may create new forms of othering.

Dave Canarie is an attorney and adjunct faculty member at USM. He lives in South Portland.


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