Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about “othering” and the Middle East. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Derek Gregory is the Peter Wall distinguished professor and professor of geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

We all do it, and most of the time it’s fairly innocent and innocuous: We identify a space in which we feel at home, where we know instinctively how to navigate and conduct ourselves, and we hold this up against all those other spaces where — to varying degrees — we don’t. These distinctions do more than map spaces inhabited by people who are not (quite) like us; they also throw into relief our sense of who we are.

There’s a wonderful passage in Giles Foden’s novel “Zanzibar that captures this to perfection. A young American woman arrives on the east coast of Africa:

“She’d realized a strong idea of America since coming to Africa.  It was not a positive idea — since the country was too vast and complicated to be thought of in that way – but a negative one.  Those shacks roofed with plastic bags, those pastel-paint signs in Swahili and broken English, that smell of wood smoke from the breakfast fires of crouched old women – those things all told her: this isn’t home.  This is far away.  This is different.”

Foden’s novel is set in August 1998, the time of the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam. It’s a reminder that sometimes the distinctions between “our space” and “their space” are underwritten by an institutionalized architecture of power, which can harden them into something much more dangerous.

The scholar Edward Said called these distinctions “imaginative geographies,” but he didn’t mean they were flights of fancy: On the contrary, they had a palpable presence and produced real effects. In his seminal critique, the book “Orientalism,” he identified two key operations. In the first, those “other” spaces — which collectively made up the “Orient” — were conjured as exotic and bizarre, confusing and disorderly, at their limit monstrous and even pathological (what he called “a living tableau of queerness”).  

In the second, this fabricated “Orient” was summoned as a space to be domesticated, disciplined and normalized — straightened out — through the forceful imposition of the order it was supposed to lack: “framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual.”

Said was writing in 1978, and even though much has changed about modern Orientalism since then — not least new media, new enemies and new wars — there is also a depressing sameness to the ways in which Orientalism continues to stalk the corridors of power. It’s not difficult to read U.S. foreign policy in these same dualistic terms. As Condoleezza Rice once put it, “the world is a messy place — and someone has to clean it up.”

It’s not just the “Orient,” of course: The contours of its imaginative geographies have been emboldened by an equally distorting vision of “the Middle East.” To ask “Middle of what?” and “East of where?” is to draw attention to the privileges and powers that are written into these false distinctions as well. They derive primarily from political and military discourse rather than cultural fact.

Our definition of the Middle East has a much shorter history; it didn’t figure in public discussion until the early 20th century. It hasn’t stood still either, especially as the United States replaced Britain and France as the primary source of its definition, but it, too, conjures up the fantasy of a single, diabolical landscape — the Middle East as what Fareed Zakaria once called “the land of suicide bombers, flag-burners and fiery mullahs.” You could just as easily — and just as accurately — describe the United States as the land of state-sponsored assassination, neo-Nazi militias and serial killers.

One of the most debilitating consequences of these bipolar imaginative geographies is their refusal to recognize and value those things that we have in common with others. In the months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the media published endless maps reducing Baghdad to an array of targets; on some online versions, you could even roll your mouse over them and watch explosions flare one after the other. In the week that Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Firdos Square, different maps appeared. One in Time magazine showed that Baghdad was about the same size as Columbus, Ohio; the city was mapped as a mosaic of different neighborhoods, and the accompanying descriptions revealed that their inhabitants were not tyrants, torturers and terrorists, but engineers, shopkeepers, schoolchildren: people like you and me.

I’m not so naive as to think that if maps of neighborhoods had been substituted for arrays of targets, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair would have acted differently. But it might have persuaded others who acted on their behalf to do so. And if it helped to produce a public that saw the world in less binary, bellicose terms, it could have reinforced calls for diplomacy and statecraft rather than military violence.

What lies behind all this is a failure of our collective imagination. At best, we are offered a radical narcissism in which we imagine what it would be like if the suburbs of Washington, D.C., suffered air raids night after night, or if our skies were full of the sound of drones, watching and waiting to strike without warning. In imagining our lives made newly vulnerable to military violence, however, we continue to privilege “our” space and separate it from “their” space. If we can imagine such horrors happening to us, why is it so difficult to imagine them being visited on others?

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