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Us & Them

On January 16, JBU chaplain Rod Reed spoke in chapel of an experience that he had in Russia. He heard the voice of an American and immediately recognized him as part of his own group despite the fact that he was Black. According to his testimony, this might not have be an assumed response in another context. His testimony is actually an excellent example of how human brains work to search out distinctions and similarities. When “Us versus Them” dichotomies are discussed in literature or in politics, they’re often seen as a rigid classifications from which there can come only conflict and sorrow. However, while this can be true, it is an oversimplification to limit such a fundamental aspect of the human psyche to immorality and prejudice. It is perfectly true that outsiders can be, and often are, harmed, hated and feared for their differences, but that’s not the entirety of how in-group and out-group dynamics work in common life. Humans do organize themselves into categories, but the fact of the matter is that those categories are countless and an individual’s status as a member of any given group can vary from immutable to instantaneously alterable. Even seemingly major divides between people can be changed given certain circumstances; physical appearance and political beliefs are usually fairly constant but they are by no means permanent.

A few thousand years ago, when humans rarely moved more than a few miles away from the place of their birth and lived in isolated homogenized communities, it would be easy to argue that differences and in-groups cause dissent and conflict and it would have occurred quite commonly; a newcomer to a small community could be pushed to the societal margins simply for their newcomer status before they even had time to expose any other differences which might exclude them.

But this idea overlooks the reality of even homogenized groups. That is to say that there can not be any community which is truly without “Us versus Them” dichotomies. Unless you have an identical twin who has never left your side, it is nearly impossible to know another person with which you are always in the same group. People can be distinguished by age, sex, political affiliation, language, interests, point of origin and more all of which are points of distinction.

The point of this argument is not to discourage you or to make you more pessimistic about humans than you might already be but to analyze what is already happening. One might rightfully wonder how certain differences cause conflict while others do not. While this is question is one that creates more questions than answers, it is fairly safe to say that group precedence plays a role. One might share solidarity with another over a shared language or hobby but this, in all likelihood, that is not going to override one’s membership in a family or friend group. This is a demonstration of how this ever-present mental faculty is not a prison that humans are trapped in but rather a device that we utilize.

In response to the permanence of the tendency to categorize, we are often encouraged to find a group so expansive that no one could be excluded. It is certainly valuable to seek out the commonalities that you might possess with all people but it is both harder and more valuable to be able to understand and empathize with those with whom you share no commonality. Human beings, each of us, are some of the most valuable resources that any of us have access to and it seems unreasonable to ignore differences or commonalities for they aren’t unimportant.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” ― C.S. Lewis, Four Loves

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of The Defendant or its staff members.

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