Vermeule: The Person/Thing Distinction
The very process of differentiating the foreign creates a mentality of “us versus them.” According to Blakey Vermeule, one of the first steps in the process of “othering” is eliminating the distinction of “[t]he boundary between persons and things,” which she calls “malleable”: “Both examples, as it happens, show that our beliefs about the world depend on where we draw the person/thing distinction.” (25). When the distinction between a person and a “thing” disappears, an individual is considered as merely a “thing” – in terms of the Hierarchy of Foreignness, a varelse – a nonentity without feelings, thoughts, or emotions; in other words, they are denied their humanity. In this way, the one “othering” another individual dehumanizes that individual in their own mind.
“Disgust” as a Process of Othering:
Through the “person/thing” distinction, the individual becomes defined only as something of disgust: “Disgust is a response to people’s bodies, not to their souls. If you see people as souls, they have moral worth…They fall within the moral circle. But if you see them solely as bodies, they lose any moral weight. Empathy does not extend to them” (25). According to Lisa Zunshine‘s “Theory of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness,” “[O]ne particular aspect of ToM, [is] namely, our ability to navigate multiple levels of intentionality…Although ToM is formally defined as a second-order intentionality…” (278). Essentially, theory of mind enables one to “navigate” levels of intentionality of another being. These multiple levels of ToM is manifest in Ender’s own thought process as he contemplates the idea of “disgust” in othering. When being bullied by his older brother Peter into playing a game of “Buggers versus Astronauts” – a game simulating the actual astronauts in their world who fight the alien buggers – six-year old Ender Wiggin is forced by his brother to be the “Bugger,” the “other,” while Peter plays the “human.” While putting on the Bugger mask, Ender attempts to think the way he thinks a Bugger would – in other words, he tries to use his theory of mind to “see” from the Bugger’s perspective:
“[Ender] put on the mask. It closed him in like a hand pressed tight against his face. But this isn’t how it feels to be a Bugger, Ender thought. They don’t wear this mask like a face, it is their face. On their home worlds, do the Buggers put on human masks and play? And what do they call us? Slimies, because we’re so soft and oily compared to them?” (Ender’s Game, 11).
There are a couple of complex levels of theory of mind working here, according to Zunshine’s levels of intentionality. Firstly, Ender tries to think from a Bugger’s perspective, how they would feel, what they would do. Secondly, he delves into a deeper second level of theory of mind by trying to think how the Buggers would think of them – the humans. In this last level, his thinking that the Buggers must consider humans as “Slimies” – the reference to “soft and oily” – is obviously descriptions inducing a sense of disgust, and therefore is the manifestation of Vermeule’s claim that to “disgust” is to “other.” Ender surmises that this may be how Buggers perceive humans precisely because he recognizes that humans also perceive and “other” Buggers in a similar way – by using terms, language, descriptions, names and concepts inducing disgust, such as the name humans have given the aliens – “Buggers” – which is also obviously another reference of disgust. Both terms, “Slimies” and “Buggers” refer not, as Vermeule writes, to their “souls,” but to their bodies – reaffirming Vermeule’s claim that “disgust” in othering psychology derives from physical bodily attributes, enabling dehumanization of the “other.”
Ender’s utilization of ToM to see from the bugger’s perspective at such a young age is one of the first evidence that his perception of othering the Buggers differentiates from that of the rest of the human population. His view of othering is influenced by the general public representation of what he has been told the Buggers are – yet he attempts to think from the perspective of the aliens/use ToM in regards to them – something that the rest of the general human society does not.