Us and Them

TribePolitical and social commentators often refer to something that they call an “Us and Them” mindset. A prime example of this is President George W Bush’s statement: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This black and white conception, that admits no greys, is sometimes compared to the cosmic dualism of Manichaeism, which, via Augustine, can be found in parts of Christianity. If not from ancient Iranian religion, it might be considered the result of the influence of a modern political doctrine, perhaps Neoconservatism. Wherever it is deemed to come from, people are always quick to identify the pernicious influence that causes this aberrant mindset.

However, such an analysis is completely the wrong way around. Humans are primates. We are biologically programmed to think in terms of the troop or tribe or clan or family. We instinctively divide people into two groups – us and the others – and our world into two territories – our land and foreign land. We do this not just with physical space but also with intellectual space: we vociferously defend our way of thinking against the wrong-headed ideas of others. This behaviour is, quite literally, in our nature. The “Us and Them” mindset is quite normal, it is the attempts to transcend this view of the world that are unnatural.

And transcend it we can. As individuals, we possess the potential for self-betterment. We can rise above our biological beginnings and become something greater. However, such an act is an individual act. As a society, we can do no such thing. Any attempt to overcome the boundary between Us and Them collectively must be an attempt at universalism – that is, an attempt to remove the distinction between Us and Them by considering everyone to be one of Us, so there’s no-one left to be Them – but such an attempt must by its very nature deny the sovereignty of the individual, which in turn denies our ability to transcend our biological nature as such transcendence can only be the act of an individual.

Why must this transcendence be an individual act? Why can we not, by subsuming ourselves into a greater whole, become part of some collective construct that exists above these biological constraints? Because we are humans and cannot escape the fact that we are animals. Any collective would be a collective of apes. It could not be something above and beyond tribal distinctions, at best it could be one big tribe. It would rely for its cohesiveness on the concept of a tribe, but it is this very concept that drives us apart. The only tool that comes close to allowing universalism to achieve its goal is in fact the very weapon that slays it. Collective transcendence is a self-defeating myth.

In contrast, the individual does not rely upon his biological nature. Indeed, the very concept of an individual – apart from nature – is unnatural. Thus the individual may transcend in the true meaning of the word, which is to climb beyond. He does not deny his nature nor does he surrender to it (two paths, which are ultimately one, that are the only options available to universalism) but rather he accepts it as part of his being and progresses beyond. A collective cannot do this because a collective cannot act. The individual members of a collective may act, and they may decide to act in accordance with what they perceive to be a collective will, but in every case the result will be the sum of the individual actions. Anything else would require a hive mind. Like it or not, we are apes not ants.

So although we may, alone, think beyond our biology, it is foolish – dangerous – to act as if it does not control our social interactions. The proper foundation for a healthy society is the individual but he must exist within an authentic context. Neither the so-called ‘individualism’ typically associated with the USA and Britain nor an artificially imposed culture such as the European Union will suffice. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is “no such thing as society.” Exactly what she meant by the phrase is debatable but it does seem to succinctly sum up the cultural fragmentation prevalent in the modern West. Some countries are worse than others – in my limited experience, I have found Scandinavia to be notably better off than much of Europe – but the people of the modern world definitely suffer from a malaise. We are rootless, disconnected and in most cases unable to identify the cause of our sickness. This manifests in everything from a resurgence of quasi-fascist politics in Europe to the exponentially growing interest in tracing one’s family tree. People desperately seek some group to which they might belong: at best this results in a thriving subculture of some sort, at worst this results in ugly racism. When people are disconnected in an atomised culture they are far more vulnerable to external forces, whether those forces are quick fixes promised by advertisers or identification peddled by political parties. Furthermore, who will help their neighbour if they do not consider him to be ‘one of us’? In short, no-one knows who ‘us’ is anymore and everyone is beginning to look suspiciously like one of ‘them’.

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Published in: on August 14, 2006 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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