Gee whiz, I hope we go to war with a foreign power or get invaded by aliens soon. Imagine the camaraderie and sense of unity that would emerge: cohesive bonds formed between flagrant abortionists and hard-line Catholics, rural white supremacists and Marxist Black Panthers, vehement feminists and old-boy male chauvinists. The “us vs. them” mentality is a useful tool both for erecting and for overcoming interpersonal boundaries in society.
The sense of the “other” is an omnipresent reality. As people, we find it easier to conceptualize the world broken down into the groups we identify with versus those we do not. As a philosophy major, I tend to overthink these things. As a Serb, this question has a poignantly personal relevance (yes, this column is all about me). I found myself wondering a few years ago exactly how people who live as neighbors for so long become such fervent enemies.
This is not a novel point. Daily columnists probably write this same article on average once a quarter. My predecessor Molly Spaeth eloquently noted in the fall how campus liberals tend to demonize campus conservatives. Though the thought is not new, there is something I want to flesh out: the underlying implications for us when we use polarizing language to paint “them” in a bad light.
This is something relevant to any group of people who contrast themselves from their opponents: Republicans, immigrants, Democrats, homosexuals, Muslims. Rhetoric tends to be bitingly divisive and polarizing in order to establish who the good guys and bad guys are.
But this feature goes beyond slogans and rallying cries: it exists in our basic framework for understanding ourselves. In each group’s categorization of itself rests an implication of who the “enemy” is. Pro-life and pro-choice are two categorizations that make this obvious: no group would classify itself as anti-life or anti-choice. By placing the value in the name, these groups create the implication that their opponents are against their ideals. Nobody thinks life is not valuable, but the classification of people as “pro-life” is meant to make us presuppose that those outside their group are against life.
Though this thought is not a revelation, its implications are rarely hashed out as much as they should be. In every group’s rhetoric is the message that the enemy exists to thwart the group’s agenda. However, no group exists solely for schadenfreude, and this is oft overlooked. Gay rights activists will demonize Prop. 8 supporters, arguing that Prop. 8 exists only to marginalize homosexuals. Prop. 8 supporters will paint a picture of gay rights activists asserting that they only want to undermine marriage.
The truth is that group agendas are self-interested. Gay rights activists want civil liberties they feel are due to them; Prop. 8 supporters want to protect the sanctity of an institution they hold sacred. Neither side works with the sole sadistic motive of thwarting the other. But civil leaders, all spit and spite and no delight, misconstrue this fact. They use these divisions to categorize people who are much more complex than their simplified attributes. My being pro-choice would associate me with others who are, implying that I am not Christian and I am likely a supporter of gay marriage, a liberal and a Democrat.
And so the us-them mentality allows us to conveniently compartmentalize people who would otherwise be much more multifaceted. In a sense, it lets us see who our friends are and (just as importantly) who they are not. This mentality explains why polemics like Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich come to be figureheads of their parties. Well I have had it! I hope others will join me in my hope that we get involved in some all-encompassing war that allows us to overcome these artificial barriers to collaboration. The only way to get past the us vs. them mentality that divides us is by creating a bigger us vs. them.
For historical examples of the rally-round-the-flag effect of a higher cause, just look at black soldiers who came home from World War II. The mentality of many who were formerly complacent with segregation changed abruptly. People began thinking, “if this man is worthy enough to serve our country on the battlefield, he’s worthy enough to share my drinking fountain.” Heck, maybe if we have World War III, we’ll finally knock out all the divisions that separate us and gain an appreciation for the values we hold in common! (Whoever said that total war was such a bad thing?)
I, for one, will be happily flagging down the Martians when they start invading, secure in my belief that, with a new “them,” we will all become “us.”
I forgot to introduce myself. Hi, I’m Nik. This is my column. Any thoughts? E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.