I am perplexed by the Us versus Them phenomenon. Try as I might, I have not been able to explain why it has such a powerful hold on so many of us.
Let me try and work through it once again using a thought experiment. I would like you to stay with me as I do and to give me your feedback at the end.
I imagine that I am invited to speak to a class of high school students in a city that I have never visited before.
I arrive at the school and walk through a corridor into the class. In front to me I find 60 students of both genders wearing the school uniform and no other marks of identification seated in random order.
Before I begin speaking to the students, this movie in my head goes into rewind mode. I am marched backwards out through the corridor. There is a pause and then I march back into the class. This process is repeated many times. Each time I re-enter the class, I find a different arrangement of the same students. Let us say, I am confronted with the following arrangements, in turn:
- The boys and girls are seated separately.
- The fair skinned and the dark skinned students are seated separately.
- The school uniforms are gone and students in western dress are seated separately from those wearing native dress.
- The urban and rural students are seated separately.
- The non-handicapped and the handicapped are seated separately.
- The students are wearing marks of religious identification and seated apart from each other.
I try and imagine if my emotions and mental responses would be the same in these subsequent encounters as they would have been in the first one.
Would that depend on whether I was sexist or a feminist, a racist or a sectarian, an Anglophile or an Anglophobe, on whether I had disdain for the handicapped or contempt for the unsophisticated?
Would I sense that the rural students smelled differently? Would I want the religious minority to apologize for something? Would I wish the girls to be more modestly dressed?
Remember that it is the same set of students; only the outward appearances and/or the seating arrangements differ in each scenario. Should my emotional response vary? And if it does, would it be fair to conclude that what I have to examine is myself and not the class?
Would it suggest that there are certain prejudices that I carry with me that make me react in a particular way to a particular arrangement of the same individuals?
I still won’t be sure where I picked up the prejudices – at my mother’s knee, in early socialization, in school, at my place of worship – but would I begin to look at myself more critically?
How would you react if you were the subject of the experiment?
Is it really Us versus Them or is it Us versus Us? Do we have to stop looking for someone to vilify, hate or pity and instead reach within ourselves to slay the demons that make us see the same reality in so many jaundiced ways?
Can we do it?