Philistines, Barbarians, Aliens, et alii:

Cognitive Semantics in Political "Otherness"

Lewis Sego

"Otherness" is only a toddler's step from egocentricity. For each of us life before birth was cognitively simplistic and a construal of limited sensations. Because pre-natal awareness centers inevitably on the self, the concept of "otherness" must await the birth process, when the infant is physically separated from her/his mother. Birth serves physically and cognitively to establish a point on the cognitive map from which "not self" or "otherness" will create a dichotomy. Usually this other is the mother or care giver for the infant. The two points, origin and destination, define a simple cognitive map between what the infant wants or needs and the "other" who can meet that need. The organism thereupon commences the long, tedious process of filling in a number of intervening variables between "self-hood" and otherness." Often the map is limited in its development by the society in which the child lives.

This paper seeks to analyze the cognitive phenomenon as represented in the semantics of "otherness," or "not I-ness," as it touches the abuse of citizens by political leaders. The term "Gentile" ("not Jew") marks an ancient usage designed overly to simplify perception of "otherness." The word "Philistine" is found, also, in the ancient Hebrew language, before pointing was added to the texts, in the exact syllabic letters required to spell "Palestine." The semantic confusion plays into extremists' hands thousands of years later, when Philistia (land of "barbarous people") no longer exists politically. During the Roman Empire the term "barbarian" (denoting a people considered by those of another nation or group to have a primitive civilization) helped focus the semantic elements of cultural difference on a dichotomy of use to generals seeking to enlist military support.

The same Roman influence through the Latin language gave us the term "alii," from which has been derived "alien" (meaning "other"). These terms often connote a person "from another and very different people or place," frequently "an outsider." Recently in the United States politicians have built on the relative naivete of voters whose cognitive maps of "otherness" remain largely dichotomous. The term "alien" has been joined with "illegal" to form a powerful semantic component in political campaigning: "Anything that happens to the 'illegal aliens' they have brought on themselves." The cognitive ingredients in this abusive use of language appear to go unnoticed, perhaps even by the abusers.

Essentially any concept emerges from contrast to itself. Cognitively dichotomies form from this ability to generalize from "that which is" to "that which is not," from the "warm" to the "not warm." Political leaders have made use of this form of cognitive processing by casting the people they seek to lead as the "good guys" (familiar looking and acting) in contrast to the "bad guys" (unfamiliar looking and acting). By denying or ignoring the relativity of the concept being used to rally political support, politicians can create perceptual patterns or maps that lend reality to the contrasts they wish to play upon. This is how "otherness" has historically served political processes.

KEYWORDS: semantics, cognition, mapping, dichotomy, politician