August 04, 2016

Us vs. Them: The Dangerous Discourse of Difference

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

I thought I was going to write this post about Brexit and the growing anti-immigration sentiment around the world. I was planning to draw a parallel between the recent referendum in Britain to leave the European Union with some of the isolationist sentiments we hear from Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump about building a wall to keep out Mexicans and barring all Muslims from entering the United States. For further context, I was going to discuss the growing nationalist surge that is enveloping much of Europe. That was my initial plan.

But then the following news events happened in the span of just over two weeks:

Anyone who follows the news, or just cares about humanity, is probably having trouble processing so many tragedies in such a short time span. At the most basic level we may ask ourselves: Why is this happening? How do we make sense of the violence and disregard for human life? What fuels the desire to cause so much death and suffering? These questions are not unique to the current moment. Although we may feel them more acutely now due to the recent chain of events, they have been discussed and debated throughout human history.

As my original idea for a post was quickly being overshadowed by more pressing stories, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something that connected these seemingly disparate news events. Was there a theme that linked Brexit, Trump’s nationalistic declarations, the violence in Sudan, global terrorism, and the racial strife in the United States that is at, if not beyond, the breaking point?

The one theme that I kept coming back to was difference. In each of these instances, there is an undeniable proliferation of an “us” versus “them” mentality. The lines in the sand are clearly drawn. No matter what side of the conflict you enter from, all of the players feel as if they are being threatened by a group of others. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss’s timeless and cautionary tale, The Butter Battle Book. However, unlike the Yooks and Zooks who are left teetering on the edge of an uneasy détente in Seuss’s classic, we are living in a time of verbal, violent and unrestrained fighting.

Nowhere was this theme more evident than at the Republican National Convention. The weeklong gathering was dominated by angry speeches depicting a dystopian world of us versus them. The main themes articulated by one speaker after another, culminating with the acceptance speech of Donald Trump, were fear, doom, division, and intolerance.

I have written about this theme of difference before when I considered “Why the World is So Screwed Up” and how we need to “See Others as Us.” In those earlier posts, I referred to the root of the problem as our dualistic orientation and I tried to envision how we might evolve beyond this mentality of building walls and drawing impassable lines in the sand. As I continued thinking about these ideas, I realized that sociology actually offers us some useful insights, maybe even some hope, for a way out of this intolerant and narrow-minded way of thinking.

A good place to start is with the sociological writing on oppression because the feelings of being persecuted, harassed, threatened, and repressed seem to capture the sentiment of the both the victims and perpetrators of many of the horrific events that have unfolded recently.

One of the leading sociological theorists on oppression is Patricia Hill Collins. In her classic book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, she identifies a key pattern that we see playing out today. Most of us know when we feel oppressed; however, we often fail to see the oppression of others and we are oblivious to ways we may contribute to their pain and suffering: “Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimization within some major system of oppression--whether it be by race, social class, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, or gender--they typically fail to see how their thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination.”

Collins goes on to point out that our failure to acknowledge the plight of others, as well as our inability to admit to our role in their plight, results in “each group [identifying] the oppression with which it feels most comfortable as being fundamental and classifies all others as being of lesser importance.” In effect, we feel as if “our” pain is real and valid whereas “their” pain is contrived and insignificant.

With everyone clinging to this us versus them mentality, our view of reality is clouded and we are unable to see what Collins refers to as the main contradiction of oppression: that there are “few pure victims or oppressors. Each individual derives varying amounts of penalty and privilege from the multiple systems of oppression which frame everyone’s lives.” To put this in somewhat simple and clichéd terms, we are all in this together, and sometimes we may come out on top and other times we may come out on the bottom. But if “we” only and always see ourselves as being victimized by “them,” then we will never come to this crucial sociological realization.

Collins is not arguing that we ignore our differences and pretend that we are all the same. The antidote to the dangerous discourse of difference is not an idealistic discourse of sameness. Although we all may experience some levels of oppression, the type of oppression we experience, the source of the oppression, and the intensity of the oppression are in no way universally and equitably felt. Some groups certainly suffer more than others.  

The challenge is for us to use differences (in who we are) as a way to achieve sameness (in how we are treated). If we can acknowledge that some people in certain situations are treated differently than we can work toward ensuring that they are treated like others in similar situations. This approach is very different than presuming sameness to deny difference. In other words, if we think that everyone is being treated the same and that those who feel as if they are being treated differently are falsifying or exaggerating their experiences, then we are missing an opportunity to use differences in a constructive and positive manner.

There was one bit of good news in the two-week stretch of violence and divisiveness: After 50 years of fighting and nearly 250,000 deaths, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a cease-fire agreement that effectively establishes a path for peace. For many Colombians, a nation at war with itself was all they ever knew. But now, the leaders of these warring factions have put their differences aside, transformed the us-versus-them mentality, and given hope to millions of Colombians that a new day is dawning for this war-torn country.

Jane Adams, one of the earliest sociologists, activists, and social workers, once remarked that: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” This sentiment seems to be a guiding principle of the Colombian cease-fire agreement. Unfortunately, it is not something we have heard or witnessed much in the past month. If we want to move beyond the dangerous discourse of difference we will have to think seriously about this quote and figure out how we can integrate this attitude into our everyday lives.

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