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.
We all know this. Those who have taken courses in sociology or political science have studied it in school. Others only need to watch TV for ten minutes or reflect thoughtfully upon their personal experiences.
We take “us and them” for granted and fail to reflect upon the terrible political implications for everybody when groups are not playing nice together. Throughout history, political elites have manipulated social groups to achieve and maintain power. Turning “us against them” has sadly been a primary tactic employed by rulers or would be rulers since the dawn of history. Near the start of Europe’s colonial age, colonizers constructed “us and them” categories called races that have become a terrible permanent part of human culture. Throughout the industrial era, factory owners have pitted “us against them” to divide workers so that they would not organize unions. And in the last two generations Republicans have masterfully used wedge politics-- pitting us against them -- to gain and keep power and to implement policies that a clear majority of the populace dislikes, but apparently cannot find any effective way to change.
We cannot reverse corrupt policies that benefit only a powerful few because our society is fragmented into rival competing groups of us and them. Too many of us care more about the beliefs and agendas of our particular group than the common threats to all groups. To be sure, we are likely to say (and probably even believe) that our primary loyalty is to humanity; that our group is not exclusive; that WE are trying to make the world better for everybody dammit but we cannot because of THEM. But the truth is, when we actually confront the difficult task of finding common ground between us and them, we tend to throw in the towel rather quickly. Sometimes it just seems easier to fight “them” than try to break through our differences in order to build a more democratic and humane political system for everybody. Perhaps some of us even fear that if we sit down at the table to make peace with “them,” the very reason for our group’s existence will dissolve and we would no longer know who we are.
That a mere 400 individuals in this constitutional republic could possess as much wealth as 150,000,000 fellow citizens, and that the government would protect their right to keep it, would be unimaginable in any other context. Our fragmentation is an almost insurmountable barrier to effective political action that would move us toward a significantly more democratic reality. There are so many different contending groups—so many different varieties of us and them—that forging a cohesive majority seems all but a hopeless pipe dream.
Although we live in an irreducibly pluralistic world, we have yet to learn how to function as a pluralistic democracy. Sadly, even those of us who belong to groups that are pledged to tolerance and inclusiveness can drop the ball as readily as those who are self-consciously exclusive. Many commentators of various ideological stripes have lately been sounding the alarm about the apparent erosion of civil discourse in our society, about the toxic negativity of our media and our elections. The level of social polarization -- and the shrillness of our rhetorical warfare -- seems to be escalating. We all feel it. Many of us worry about it. Most of us say that we want it to stop. But too often we ourselves contribute to it--including me.
To restore civil discourse and bring down the level of polarization, we need to learn new ways of relating together as us and them. If we want to preserve any vestige of democracy, we will need a fast learning curve.
I recently posted an article suggesting that secular progressives hurt the cause of progressive social change by stereotyping religious believers and using needlessly offensive language when they write about “them.” I knew that I was challenging perhaps the most volatile example of the “us and them” dynamic (and the one that Republicans have exploited most profitably), so I fully expected the kind of response that the article elicited. I received many grateful emails from other readers who shared at least part of my point of view, but of course I also drew many negative criticisms.
Using the comment thread as a primary source document -- evidence of where our society stands at this moment in history—is sadly instructive. It demonstrates that people who belong to groups that are committed to rational analysis and social tolerance are nonetheless capable of verbally abusing others in language that can reasonably be defined as bullying or even “hate speech” when they imagine that they are addressing some hated “them” and when they are shielded by the cloak of anonymity.
But the Web by its very nature is public, global, and open to all of the countless social groups in the world (unless our corporate elite manage to gain control of the Web too). Unless you have privacy filters in place (which would defeat the whole purpose of a political site like AlterNet), even a website that is owned by your “own kind” and dedicated to your own agenda will still be accessed by people who are “them.” Others will check you out and what they find on your site will influence their opinion of the cause that is so dear to your heart. What you post on the Web, and the language that you employ, has inescapable political consequences. This is true not only of bloggers and writers who publicly sign their names, but equally the case with the countless nameless folk who contribute comments.
In Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003), Julian Baggini makes this very pertinent point. “I am not convinced,” Baggini writes,
that a strong case can be made that religion is essentially and especially harmful. Nor do I
believe that a firm belief in the falsity of religion is enough to justify militant opposition to it.
At root . . . my opposition to militant atheism is based on a commitment to the very values
that I think inspire atheism: an open-minded commitment to the truth and rational enquiry. These are rightly called values because they express not only claims about what is true but about what we feel to be most important. Hostile opposition to the beliefs of others combined with a dogged conviction of the certainty of one’s own beliefs is . . . antithetical to such values. Reason and argument are not just tools to be used to win over converts. They are processes that need to be engaged with, and to engage in them with other people one needs to be open to their alternative viewpoints.
Baggini concludes with the warning that reason and argument cannot be engaged properly “if they are seen as battering rams to destroy the edifice of religious belief.” (p. 106)
There are too many battering rams in the blogosphere. I am not pointing my finger at every militant Atheist. I am not pointing my finger at every Progressive. I am certainly not denying that “they” (whoever they may be) are also guilty. But given the commitment to democracy that progressives typically profess, it is disappointing that we do not do a better job at keeping our discourse civil.
A couple of years ago I was teaching a college class on American Democracy. I sent my students to various political sites, including AlterNet, to get a range of viewpoints on the issues that we were discussing in class. I encouraged my students to share their own opinions online, to leave comments on any articles that hit a chord. One of my students, an eighteen year old from a small Nebraska town who was raised in the Catholic Church and a member of the Catholic student group on campus, responded to a post on AlterNet. The particulars of the article and the nature of her views are not relevant; her comment was thoughtful, polite and (unlike many thread comments) actually focused on an important point raised by the original article. Although I did not share her opinion, I thought that she had successfully raised legitimate questions, and of course I believe that she was engaging in a process that is fundamental to democracy.
In response to her thoughtful comment, she received a stream of terribly hurtful messages, including “Catholics can fuck themselves.” In any moral universe, this is not rational discourse. It is simply intolerant meanness. To try to justify it by an appeal to freedom of speech is absurd. I am a member of the ACLU, and I will defend to my last breath the right of a fool to speak foolish things, just as the ACLU has defended the right of the Klan to spout hatred. But let’s not kid ourselves. It IS hatred, it is not moral, and I repeat my caution that such remarks do indeed harm the cause of progressive social change.
What kind of democracy do we who call ourselves “progressives” imagine? We know that we are a diverse constellation of groups (and we also know that many of our fellow citizens would never call themselves progressives at all). Some of us are especially committed to racial justice, and others more deeply involved in the struggle for gender equality. Some of us exhaust ourselves in the fight for a cleaner environment, and others are more involved with LGBT issues. Nobody has the time and energy to be deeply invested in everything, and we each choose our own place to fight. The only common denominator is that all of us are in some sense dissenters from the current power system, and we dare to imagine that our world could be more peaceful, more just, and healthier if we could change the system.
But change it to what? Have we really dared to imagine what a new system would look like, or are we so intently focused on the advancement of our particular agendas that we do not have time or inclination to ask fundamental questions?
The fundamental questions need to be raised, because what we imagine—no matter how inchoate it may be—influences the way that we act and the choices that we make every day. Nothing is more immediately practical and political than imagination.
What sort of society do we imagine? Have you ever wondered what we might do if we ever managed to get enough votes to control the White House, the Senate and the House, change the Supreme Court and keep power long enough to implement fundamental changes? Do we even have the foggiest notion what sort of society we could realistically expect to create?
Here is part of my imagined progressive future: a community of communities. I have to confess that I did not come up with this myself. The term was suggested to me by Diane Eck, a marvelous scholar of religion at Harvard who has written much about the nature of religious pluralism and democracy. If readers are not familiar with Eck’s work, I urge them to run (not walk) to their library or bookstore and get reading. In her beautiful meditation entitled Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (Beacon Press, 1993), Eck writes the following:
“In developing a sense of we that is wider than the we of culture, religion or clan, it will be important to have an image of what kind of human relatedness we wish to bring into being. People of each religious tradition have dreams of what the world should ideally be and how we should all be related to one another even though we are not all the same. Glimpsing one another’s dreams is an important step in beginning to reimagine the we. Do we imagine ourselves to be separate but equal communities, concerned primarily with guarding one another’s rights in a purely civic construction of relatedness? Do we imagine ourselves to be related as parts of an extended family, or as many families of faith? Do we imagine ourselves to be religious communities competing in goodness and in righteousness, as the Qur’an puts it? Imagining a we does not mean leaving our separate communities behind, but finding increasingly generative ways of living together as a community of communities. To do this, we all must imagine together who we are.”
To imagine together who we are will require us to loosen the boundaries between Us and Them, to take seriously the need to move past diatribes and to engage in genuine dialogue with people who are truly different from us and who are not about to relinquish their convictions simply because we wish they would. After two thousand years of evangelism, Christians have still not converted the entire world to faith in Jesus, and they are probably not going to do so in another two thousand. And Atheism, which has been around longer than Christianity, is not likely going to win the world over either. But Christians and Atheists, along with members of many, many other social groups, must have confidence that we will welcome them and fight to protect their secure place in the community of communities that would constitute any authentically democratic we.
Is genuine dialogue between groups with deeply opposed beliefs possible and can some sort of common ground come out of such dialogue? Yes and yes, but not easily. Anthropologist Jack David Eller, who is an Atheist, has written the most comprehensive study of religious violence yet published: Cruel Deeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History (Prometheus, 2010). Like Baggini, Eller rejects as “ultimately unhelpful” the proposed eradication of religious belief: “Religion is nowhere near disappearing in the modern world, and attacks on it only tend to strengthen and mobilize it.” Despite their philosophical differences Eller suggests a future that is remarkably similar to Methodist Diane Eck’s, one in which the presence of many groups with conflicting worldviews is respected and people work cooperatively to minimize the “group effect” by intentionally seeking to establish more “porous” boundaries between “Us and Them.” It is crucial that members of every group come to see that what we hold in common is far more vital than what differentiates us. Warring groups who have caused each other pain will especially have a difficult time learning to “rehumanize” each other. Reconciliation and Trust will not be achieved without much effort, struggle and mutual commitment to one another. Ironically, perhaps, Eller the atheist admits that promoting such an enlarged vision “is something that religion can do better than any other human thought system.” (p. 363)
We have a lot of rehumanizing to do. There are powerful political and economic interests that want to keep us fragmented and at one another’s throats rather than working together to establish a more inclusive democracy. They will do all they can to stir continued discord between groups and to use wedge politics to defeat our aspirations for meaningful change. Can progressives of all persuasions, no matter what our primary interest groups may be, at least agree that we will stop doing their job for them?