I used to buy into the narrative that we are self-directed beings and it was entirely up to us to individually determine and steer our destinies. Those who did this well — the ‘successful’ ones — were awe-inspiring. I wanted to be like them.
As aspirational and motivating as I found this narrative to be, looking back, I realize it also hardened my heart. This is because when I looked at those who didn’t model that industrious version of success, I deemed them as not measuring up. Why weren’t they grabbing the steering wheel of their lives and turning it in the direction of health, wealth, and wellness??!!
I later realized this was a complete projection of my own imagined insufficiencies. I was fortunate (I guess) in that I was born a white, straight, cisgender male and have realized an automatic degree of privilege because of it. However, we were also poor in comparison to many others in our demographic. My parents both struggled with undiagnosed mental illness (well, they were diagnosed by me, which doesn’t really count, I guess) and my father had a very unhealthy relationship to money that I obviously inherited.
Enough about me…
This brings me to the thing I REALLY want to share with you today and that is the concept of (drumroll, please…) the SOCIAL OTHER. I’ve written about this magical concept in my musings on mimetic theory, but I wanted to unpack it a bit more here.
What theorists mean by ‘social other’ is everything that is other than ‘me’ (and, in your case, ‘you’). The ‘social other’ includes other humans, the climate, the weather, the earth, etc.
We’re not talking about God here. God isn’t part of the ‘social other’. God is spoken of in these terms as the ‘Other other’ which I’ll write about later.
The social other has to do entirely with the human realm (horizontal) rather than the divine realm (vertical). It’s the air we breathe, our understanding of history, our parents and relatives, friends, neighbors, politicians, education and social structures, etc.
Here’s what’s important about this ‘social other’…
The social other massively precedes us and shapes us at all times. I mean, think about it. What involvement did you have about your parents conceiving you? I don’t know about you, but they didn’t stop and ask my opinion on whether or not it was a good decision (I’m not sure what I would’ve told them if they had). The very human act that brought me into this world was utterly beyond my control.
If we follow this concept further, once I was conceived and was a fetus inside my mom’s uterus, I wasn’t a Gigapet or something that could run itself. Humans have a long gestation period. For nine months, we’re totally vulnerable and rely fully on countless protective factors towards our mothers for our survival in the face of possible rape, murder, malnourishment, lightning strikes, reckless drivers, not being directly under an anvil or a grand piano as it falls from an 8-story building, etc.
Going even further, once we’re born, it’s not like our parents throw some clothes on our back and send us packing to live our #bestlives. Abandoned babies do one thing (if they remain abandoned)… They die. We can’t self-start, self-gestate, or take care of ourselves in the slightest once we’re born. We can’t even control when we shit. We are totally dependent on the social other for food, warmth, water, and protection.
We’re also born in a floppy and dysfunctionally shaped way. When a horse or a cow is born, it plops out and extends its proportional and sufficiently muscular legs. A few hours later, it’s off and running with very minimal care and tending. In comparison to this, we can see how unviable we are for a very long time.
We entirely depend on the social other to keep us alive and usher us into this world for many years in order to make it.
This extends beyond our physicality and biology. It’s not like we have these perfectly mature and fully formed intellects and pathologies that are ready to interact with the world as soon as our awkward bodies reach maturation. When we’re infants, we’re more like space aliens than humans! We’re flat-out hopeless and unintelligible. We’re dependant on the social other to provide a safe environment for us to stay alive in as our parents and/or immediate others shape us into a ‘self’.
Let’s talk about the shaping now because this is where it gets really miraculous (not that the whole thing isn’t miraculous, but…). In response to the movements people make towards us, our mirror neurons begin to fire. We start to reproduce in our brains the things they do to us and that we see them do. This shows that we are designed for imitation from the very beginning. As soon as a baby can see, stick your tongue out at them and see what happens (when they figure out what’s going on, which sometimes takes some patience). They stick their tongue back out at you.
And the mimicry has begun…
To further this little anthropological experiment, we can put a binky in the baby’s mouth and smile at it. Even though it can’t smile back as it sucks away, watch what happens when you take the binky away… It’ll smile! This is incredible stuff. It showcases how memory is formed from mimicry.
This is what’s so important at this early stage… It’s not about what we WANT to do. It’s about what is being done to us and how those things stick into our memory for later (and habitual) imitation. This is how we form a viable ‘self’.
What’s this all about?… It shows that we are FAR from being self-starting and self-functioning individuals.
We are brought into this world, kept alive, and shaped not by our own volition, but by the conditions and movements of the social other.
Though the wider social other (our environment, our food and water supply, the greater socio/political climate, existing in nonviolent conditions, etc.) is vital to our being, when it comes to shaping our ‘selves’, what’s most important are the closer and more immediate ‘others’ (those we personally interact with like our family). These people largely shape our individual selves because this is who we mirror, imitate, and memorize (and then consciously forget when what we mimic fades into habit).
It’s been shown that children learn more deeply from other humans than from digital devices. That’s because a screen doesn’t fire off mirror neurons as another human does. It’s human interaction where we learn developmental habits and skills.
It’s almost like our pathology can tell when things are being intentionally done towards us (by another human) and when they’re not.
All of this is to drive this one point home… We are brought into this world, kept alive, and shaped not by our own volition, but by the conditions and movements of the social other.
Those ‘unsuccessful’ people I used to be so frustrated with (including the guy in my mirror) that I talked about at the beginning of this post — turns out it wasn’t as simple as them just not making the right choices. It was far more complex than this. Their very selves were shaped by countless factors in the social other beyond their own.
As much as I wanted to believe it when I went through my Ralph Waldo Emerson stage, we are not designed to be self-reliant and individually driven beings. We are utterly hopeless and interdependent in countless vital ways and we model the social other to develop an inner ‘self’.