Rebecca Trotter is a guest writer for us today. This is an immensely important topic to healing violence, political division, and religious hatred. I think you will enjoy this article!
In talking with my fellow countrymen, it has become increasingly clear that there are two competing and seemingly irreconcilable mindsets at work in the conflicts being played out around us. On one side, you have people who see the world in terms of “us vs them” in which humanity is divided between those who are on our side and those who are not. On the other are those who see the world in terms of “just us”, as in there is no “us vs them”, there is only a broad “us” which encompasses all of humanity. “Us vs them” thinkers see our differences as a cause for division, while “just us” thinkers seek to transcend our differences and recognize our deeper, shared humanity.
Those who believe in an “us vs them” view of human relations understand the world in terms of conflict resolved by the exercise of power. If we define ourselves in opposition to a “them”, the relationship between “us” and “them” will be determined by the exercise of power and the formation of hierarchy with one above the other. As such, the ultimate value for the “us vs them” thinker is maintaining power.
The centrality of power and hierarchy in the “us vs them” mindset creates an inconsistency which the “just us” thinker finds confusing and hypocritical. Those who see the world as a power struggle between us and them often fervently proclaim their belief in things like free speech, freedom of religion, the right to personal safety and protection, the right to free movement, fair treatment and the like.
However, when those who they see as other make claims to those same rights, these same people have a bajillion justifications, excuses and rationalizations for why these things do not belong to “them”. Because, as important as the principles involved may be, without power, those principles are just ideas and not lived reality. For the “us vs them” mind, you either dominate or are dominated. And it is right and moral to do ensure that your people – your “us” - dominate instead of being dominated. Granting full freedom and rights to “them” would shift the balance of power, rendering “us” vulnerable and less free. This is why certain religionists, political factions and the like feel that they are being persecuted or threatened by the expansion of rights to “them”.
For the “us vs them” thinker, appeals to recognize the humanity, suffering and rights of “them” sound like attempts to undermine their power and therefore their rights and security. And further, because “us vs them” thinkers believe that this oppositional understanding of human relating is natural to the point of inevitable, they assume that the arguments from principle made by “just us” proponents are just as disingenuous as their own, existing only to establish a justification for the exercise of power and special privilege. Thus there is a tendency for the “us vs them” thinker to respond to challenges to their mentality with the same sort of accusations of hypocrisy and faulty logic which they are subjected to. Only they will do so with a seeming disregard for context, harm or the truth because when the most important objective is power, argument and reasoning are fundamentally tools for establishing dominance rather than discerning what is true or good.
While the “us vs them” mentality has been normative through out much of human history, it has also been responsible for enormous amounts of suffering and held humanity back from our full potential. To the extent that it works, the “us vs them” mentality harnesses our natural competitive tendencies for the purposes of securing the safety and rights of one’s own group.
However, it fails to understand a fundamental feature of human nature: no human being is designed to be dominated or oppressed. In the face of dominance and oppression, there will always be resistance, no matter how little chance of success. This resistance can be suppressed through the exercise of power; prisons, death, discrimination, the withholding of resources, infliction of pain. However, this inevitably creates a cycle of resistance. And the struggle for and against power uses and destroys creative energies which could be put to better use elsewhere, thus preventing humanity from reaching its full potential. While power and domination may work for the powerful in the short term, it is an unstable, unsustainable, self-defeating model for human relations.
The “just us” mentality offers humanity an escape from this cycle which destroys human life and squanders human potential. In practice, a “just us” mentality requires that we not impose hardships or difficulties on other people that we are not willing to accept for ourselves. Rather than making us vulnerable, the “just us” perspective understands that the treatment which we are willing to accept for the least will eventually become the sort of treatment which is acceptable for all of us. Thus, it is not only moral to share rights and power, it is a means of securing our own rights and freedoms over the course of time and change. Further, freeing ourselves from the constant push and pull of power struggles between “us and them” allows humanity to direct our creative energies to solving the problems which plague humanity.
One of the reasons that the “us vs them” mentality maintains its grip on much of humanity, despite its obvious drawbacks is that those who think this way are easy to manipulate. This is exactly what has happened in the fight against terrorism. The terrorists say openly that our aggression is their best recruitment tool and our “us vs them” mentality is our Achilles heel. Their stated goal is to bait us into heavy handed, indiscriminate violence which will ensure they have a steady supply of recruits to keep the fight going. The longer we can be made to fight, the we impoverish ourselves. Our attachment to the idea of securing our own safety through dominance over “them” ensures that we will willingly surrender our own liberties in the fight.
Meanwhile, power brokers, politicians and corporate interests are making bank and gaining access to valuable resources as the process plays out, giving lie to the delusion that Americans are in the dominant position anyways. The security obtained through domination is always an illusion anyways. It just ensures that the suffering which is part and parcel of life on this planet is multiplied and then concentrated among whomever is currently in the weak position. But what goes around comes around eventually.
A widespread embrace of “just us” thinking which refuses to give into the fears and temptations of “us vs them” thinking is the only sustainable option for escaping from this kind of conflict and manipulation. The challenge is how to get the “us vs them” thinkers to risk stepping outside their own mindset in order to see the bigger picture. The necessary paradigm shift inevitably requires some level of sacrifice from those who are dominant for the benefit of those who are currently in a weaker position. For someone who is stuck in the "us vs them" mentality to sacrifice for the benefit of "them" is unthinkable, even if the sacrifices are relatively minor or completely fair and just. (Such as a removal of privilege when applying for jobs.)
But if the "us vs them" thinkers do not shift to a "just us" mentality, they, like all the “us vs them” thinkers who went before them, will lose their dominant position which they relied on to secure their own rights, freedoms and safety. At which point, they will have to hope that the dreaded “them” is more willing than they were to shift to a “just us” paradigm.
Rebecca Trotter is a writer, thinker, teacher, talker, Christian and odd duck. You can find more of her work at The Upside Down World. www.theupsidedownworld.com