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"Us vs Them": A Simple Recipe to Prevent Strong Society from Forming

Powerful interests want to keep us at one another’s throats rather than working together.

My Uncle Richard did not need to die prematurely. He was a victim of the most relentless killer the world has ever known: Us and Them. This assassin can slay victims in countless ways. In my uncle’s case, it looked like either a stroke or medical malpractice. But it really was Us and Them.

Richard had left our Appalachian family farm at the tag end of the Great Depression. He moved to a big city in New York, got a job with a rising company, and soon he became management. He made a bundle, joined a country club, had a good life, but got burned out. When I was about ten years old, he decided to take early retirement and move back home to the farm. He wanted out of the city, out of the rat race, and back to nature. Soon after he returned, he went to our local small town doctor for a physical exam. He felt fine. But the doctor told him that he needed immediately to stop taking a medication that his family physician in New York had prescribed. Uncle Richard derisively ignored the advice. His New York doctor was an old friend—a member of the country club in fact—while the small town doctor was a refugee from the Soviet Union. This was during the Cold War, when most Americans imagined that nothing in the Soviet Union could possibly be up to American standards, and certainly not medical training. The last time I ever saw my Uncle, he was fuming about the “damned Russkie.” “Can you imagine the nerve of that damned Russkie, thinking he knows more than my doctor?”

Two weeks later Uncle Richard was dead. The coroner’s report made it clear: he should have listened to the Russkie.

My uncle was not particularly stubborn or foolish. He was just being human. We humans are by nature social creatures, even the most introverted of us, and we tend to trust and follow the thinking of the groups with which we identify. Some of these groups are small and select, like the country club or the gals we meet at the bar every Wednesday night. Others groups are bigger but still rather specific, like Orlando Magic fans or the members of the ACLU. Still others are larger yet, “imagined communities” like America or Great Britain. Others are transnational, like Christianity or Islam (also imagined communities). Our groups define “us” and exert powerful influence on how we think, even how we feel, and how we behave in society.

By definition, of course, every group creates “Them”— they are all the ones who are not in our group. They may not be hostile to us; we may be peacefully disposed to them. In that case we will be friendly when we meet them; heck, we may even invite them to sit at the table with us or join us at the bar. We may even actively seek to recruit them, to convert them into “us.”

But most groups have some set of outsiders—some particular slice of the vast population that is “them” –that serves a very special symbolic function in their cosmos. These are members of other groups that believe things or advocate things that our group opposes. They are the enemy.

Many groups, in fact, are formed specifically in opposition to some other group, and thus are defined precisely by their competition or conflict with “Them.” In this case, between “us” and “them” there can be nothing but implacable hostility.

Conflict, often low level, but sometimes violent, is endemic to human social life. It is built into the sociology of groups. “Us and Them” cannot be totally eradicated without eliminating human social groups altogether. Although conflicting social groups need not be bitterly oppositional, they often become so. And when they are in clear opposition, they do not necessarily turn violent, yet the violence springs up all too easily.

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