Us Versus Them

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:

  1. The boys and girls are seated separately.
  2. The fair skinned and the dark skinned students are seated separately.
  3. The school uniforms are gone and students in western dress are seated separately from those wearing native dress.
  4. The urban and rural students are seated separately.
  5. The non-handicapped and the handicapped are seated separately.
  6. 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?


  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 12:39h, 17 May Reply

    You are right that the fault is within you. However, if the students are sitting in a certain manner that someone must have caused it.

    Interestingly, I just wrote my thoughts on the facebook about Pakistanis mindset. I hope I did not go overboard. What do u think?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:12h, 18 May

      Sohail, Someone indeed causes it. People with power attempt to order society in conformity with their prejudices. Now the Taliban want to banish girls from the classroom. But we know that there is nothing sacrosanct about these prejudices – they are all arbitrary. We have to get to the point where everyone in society feels entitled to an equal acceptance as a human being.

      Where did you post your comment on Facebook?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 08:47h, 18 May Reply

    Forming groups is part of our survival instinct (there is safety in numbers). A group needs a leader for it to go anywhere. Leaders are mostly lotteries chosen on a set of notions and traits like their capacity to make noise(N Modi), their family charisma (Rahul Gandhi) and so on, not necessarily meeting long term objective of group. Democracy throws up this best in elections. India is lucky that Manmohan Singh gets chance to run the government even though on his own he can’t win an election.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:23h, 20 May

      Anil, There is a fascinating article in today’s New York Times (Message in What We Buy, but Nobody’s Listening) that makes a very interesting point about evolution theory: We call it evolution but it never evolves.

      The context of the article is conspicuous consumption and the writer asks why natural selection would leave us with such “unproductive fetishes.”

      The answer is quite a unique insight: “Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy,” he says, calling our desire to impress strangers a quirky evolutionary byproduct of a smaller social world.

      “We evolved as social primates who hardly ever encountered strangers in prehistory,” Dr. Miller says. “So we instinctively treat all strangers as if they’re potential mates or friends or enemies. But your happiness and survival today don’t depend on your relationships with strangers. It doesn’t matter whether you get a nanosecond of deference from a shopkeeper or a stranger in an airport.”

      I thought of this when I read your remark that “forming groups is part of our survival instinct (there is safety in numbers).”

      Just as we are no longer living in a world where almost everyone we met mattered to us in one way or another, we are no longer living in a world of warring tribes. In countries with the rule of law, people don’t really have to band into groups to ensure their survival. Are we just being outmoded thinking of ourselves as belonging to group A versus group B for survival reasons?

      It would be interesting to think of the evolution of evolution theory along these lines.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 01:53h, 20 May Reply

    Instinct does not have an element of volition therefore it is futile to expect we will not form groups because there is no need to do so.

    I guess defining change in instinct occurs not when these traits don’t bring in dividends but when they actually jeopardize existence itself. Therefore, we will continue to form groups.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:11h, 21 May

      Anil, The point of evolution theory may be that instincts disappear when the need for them disappears. In 2000 Robert Putnam wrote a book Bowling Alone that showed that membership in groups in the US was declining and people were doing more things as individuals.

      Groups still exist but they do so for reasons of socialization and not survival. So group membership has become a volitional and not an instinctual act. There are many people who belong to no group whatsoever. In the US groups that form for survival motives, like the Branch Dravidians, are considered the loony fringe and society feels justified, rightly or wrongly, to break them up by force.

      We can test these hypotheses on ourselves and see if we belong to any groups for reasons of survival. If so, what would happen if we opt out of such groups?

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:04h, 24 May Reply

    I guess you are right as far as long term association with groups are concerned where rational thinking comes in to play. Forming groups instinctively for no apparent reason hasn’t disappeared and your example of girls drifting to one side and boys to other end in classroom is instinctive but tell them expressly that they need not sit separately; you may see gradual dispersion. It is true that group’s utility for survival is largely lost but the legacy has lingered.

    In this other article you mentioned this guy yelling “Go Steelers” in the middle of a presentation. That was also an instinctive act of group association.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:30h, 29 May Reply

    Another perspective on the ‘us versus them’ issue:

    “Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says. “Our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games.”

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