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Us versus Them: The Human Problem

posted May 2, 2011, 4:04 PM by MLK Community Build   [ updated May 2, 2011, 7:15 PM ]
by Eli Steier

We do not get to choose the various groups we are born into. Fortunately, people usually enjoy being part of groups, and most people count themselves as members of a diverse range of groups: chess players, football players, nations, etc. As we grow we gain the freedom, and responsibility, to join the groups we choose.

There is nothing wrong with being a member of a particular group as long as the group is a good one. Good groups promote peace, goodness, knowledge, prosperity, lasting social bonds, and health. Good groups teach their members to see the "Us" in the "Them" without dissolving their distinct "Us"ness. It needs to be stated that though all good groups have similar goals, the differences in approach are significant. The diverse good activities humans pursue enrich the world, and the diverse bad activities humans pursue destroy the world. There are many good groups in the world with many different names, and have different ways of doing things. These differences are real, because reality is affected by them in different, specific ways. These groups add to the rich, diverse tapestry of civilization. Each of these individual groups form a distinct “Us” which operates by its own inner logic. The real work, seems to me, is to learn to build, and maintain the “Us and Them” mentality, instead of an “Us versus Them” mentality. The goal is to work peacefully beside others that are not like you.

The problem arises when one “Us” seeks to impose its view of what “Us” means upon others by coercion. Northrop Frye once wrote that something in each of us wants to join a mob. I don’t think he was against people joining groups, which, indeed, would be impossible. To get through the day I rely on many people, living and dead, known and unknown, who, through various processes, have helped provide me with food, electricity, water, shelter, and other needs. People are social creatures, and need each other to flourish.

I think Mr. Frye was referring to a very specific group: mob. Michael Umphrey once wrote that there seems to be a universal impulse in humans to force their will upon others. This, he writes, is the totalitarian impulse. I would argue that it is a cousin to the mob impulse.

A mob is composed of individuals who cannot stand alone on their own. They are composed of those who take their cues from other humans in the false belief that they do not have the ability to discern truth from falsehood, right from wrong, or fiction from non-fiction.

A group stands in contrast to a mob. A group is composed of autonomous individuals that are pursuing the same goals. The goal can be to run, to build houses, or to assist the poor. The goal is arbitrary, and groups form around specific goals.

There is a movement without a name that, with the best of intentions, seeks to eliminate all groups, all “Us”es whose views differ from their own. In ignorance, this group presumes that all other groups are misinformed. Instead of acknowledging the reality of different groups, this groups calls for the allegiance of all other groups.

A normal person embraces the diversity of human expression, and, in freedom, joins groups that have similar goals. A normal person does not control others.

The group to which I refer is not normal. This group does not recognize the claims of various groups. This group does not want there to be more than one group, more than one “Us”. This group is a mob, and wants only one group. Like Sauron pursuing the one ring, they want to call it Same.

Eli Steier was born, and raised in Queens where he developed a great fondness for the often libeled bird the pigeon. He is a fan of teaching, reading, and writing, and is currently learning Spanish and Hebrew.