So much of life is ‘Us vs Them’. We have noted that one difference between great literature and popular literature is that in popular fiction, there are good guys — who are like us — and bad guys, who are completely different.
In great literature, everyone is a reflection of ourselves.
We also noted that it’s not quite that simple, of course. Shakespeare gave us some of the world’s best literature, but he gave us Iago, a pure sociopath who is impenetrable to those of us who care about other human beings.
When We’re ‘Them’
I see real problems in the world, I see real pain. I see it in the ER, but I also see it in the news, and sometimes I see it on the street or the grocery store. Occasionally I see it in the lives of those I love, and sometimes I am horrified to find that I caused it. So it’s not simply ‘Us vs Them,’ because sometimes we’re really ‘them.’
From time to time, we’re all the bad guys.
When we take the ‘us against them’ approach, we don’t see the pain any more. What happens to ‘those people’ becomes unimportant. Or it even becomes what they deserve.
Sometimes We Used to be ‘Them’
And part of our fiction we tell ourselves, is that we will never be them. Look at my article on Syrian immigrants. Many of today’s Lebanese are opposed to Syrian immigrants. How quickly one generation forgets the suffering of the previous one; and how blithely we assume that our privilege is fixed, entitled, and that neither we nor our children will never find ourselves, once again, on the wrong side of the tracks. So in ‘Us vs Them’ sometimes we were ‘them’ not all that long ago.
I previously noted that during the Oil Boom here in Lafayette, there was a joke, “When a Cajun makes money, what’s the first two things he changes?
“His car and his political party.”
Of course, during the Oil Bust, I wonder how many of the locals changed yet again. I’m not being snarky here. We all do this, we flip-flop on what we believe based on our circumstances.
When I was growing up, homosexuality was anathema, the subject of much derision and a topic for many jokes. Now we know that we were surrounded by LGBT folks, even in our own families, and we have become aware of how much suffering, humiliation, and guilt they endured. Then AIDS hit, which was the biggest outing ever. Suddenly we found out that many people we cared about deeply were gay, and that changed our opinions, quickly. Sometimes in ‘Us vs Them’, they were really us all along.
We still struggle with racism, but in the ER I see so many biracial/multiracial children. It seems to me that most of them are from blue collar and lower income homes, not exactly where one would expect a lot of racial tolerance. But the kids are often brought in by their grandparents. Obviously, having a biracial grandchild cause us to completely rethink things.
Choosing ‘Us vs Them’
The breakdown is pretty simple, from a strategic standpoint. When we decide that another person is similar to us, it means we are looking for cooperation, for peace. And when we decide that someone is different, we are looking for conflict and competition and ultimately, war.
We can consider this in our interactions with ISIS, Russia, China, and North Korea. All of these are active or potential enemies. We need to ask ourselves where we want to go. We can decide we wish to make them enemies, and potentially go to war with them. Or we need to ask if we can find some way to build cooperation, and create value for everyone. China and Russia represent situations where we have a good chance of creating cooperation. It doesn’t mean, of course, that we only offer carrots; we still need to keep a stick around. But the point is, most Americans don’t view them as permanent enemies.
With ISIS and North Korea, the chances of a cooperative outcome are slim. So we need to keep wailing away with a stick. But we also need to offer carrots when we get the opportunity.
Stop the Madness
And then we need to look across the aisle: the political aisle, the temple aisle. Are people of other political and religious groups automatically our enemies? Is competition and potential war with them our only option?
Is it even the best option?
That’s certainly what much of our current political rhetoric suggests; there is no room for cooperation, only war and annihilation. It’s tearing the country apart.
For those of us who don’t like that outcome, perhaps we should talk more about carrots, and less about truncheons.
Us & Them signs courtesy of AwakeAt2Oclock.com.