“Us” vs “them”
I voted for Hillary Clinton today.
And if you’re an American reading that sentence, then statistically speaking, there is roughly a 50/50 chance that you voted for Donald Trump.
(This is not a post about who you should vote for or why. Maybe you voted for Hillary; maybe you voted for Donald. Maybe you voted Gary or Jill or Bernie or maybe you wrote in Howard Stern; maybe you didn’t vote at all. I don’t actually care; in any case, you are welcome here as a reader and friend.)
So suppose that you voted for Donald Trump, or take a moment to imagine that you did. What does this turn of events say about you and I?
Does that make me a liberal, or you a conservative? Does that mean that I am pro-choice and you are pro-life? Are you a racist or am I corrupt?
Does that make me wrong, and you right?
I won’t attempt to answer those questions, but rather, I invite you to consider another:
Why do we organize so much of lives into “us” and “them”?
And even more importantly, should we?
Presidential elections have a way of dividing human life into us and them. Politicians campaign on extreme positions for the purpose of “energizing the base” and, once elected, reluctantly move back toward a position of compromise. However, presidential elections aren’t merely two candidates expressing different views; much has already been written about the indecency with which the candidates and their constituents have attacked each other (arguably, some more than others).
Of course, it isn’t just elections. Human history is nothing if not a history of us versus them and what happens when the two collide. From birth, we are separated from one another by national borders, religious dogma, political affiliation, cultural history, skin color, sexual orientation, occupational status, and even sports rivalries. When two sides cannot navigate their differences, conflict erupts. Often, violently.
But why? Why, in spite of the enormous costs, do we persist in drawing these arbitrary lines, in idolizing our differences? Why do we waste valuable years of our lives being so unhappy with and even maiming and killing each other?
For starters, dividing ourselves into teams once served an important evolutionary purpose; our primitive, hunter-gatherer ancestors organized themselves into tribes for safety and of course, for companionship. Studies demonstrate that the human brain is wired to pay special attention to novel stimuli (differences), in part because differences may signal danger.
Homo sapiens have wandered the earth for hundreds of thousands of years, but it’s only in the last few hundred that a vast majority of us have begun to live and work alongside so many people we don’t know well; those not belonging to our evolutionarily-ingrained sense of tribe. More fundamentally, dividing ourselves into teams allows the human brain to simplify a complex world. In much the same way that observing that someone is “a white man” or “a tall woman” allows us to identify them more easily, in labeling someone a “conservative” or “liberal”, we’ve made a intuitive judgment about their trustworthiness or helpfulness.
Is this a person I trust? Is she likely to be helpful?
Is he “one of us” or “one of them”?
This trait of our brains can serve us well and in many ways, it has for hundreds of thousands of years. But the world that our ancestors inhabited is radically different from the one that most of us live in today. The cognitive function which enabled hunter-gatherers to select mates and avoid predators is prone to overstate modern dangers (say, someone who disagrees with someone else on Facebook). Importantly, it can lead us astray when it forms wrong conclusions from incomplete or inaccurate information.
In our modern world, a position is not to be casually dismissed because it originates from “the other side of the aisle”; it can be held, considered and talked about on its own merits. The person who holds it is not to be disregarded because they are a “liberal” or “conservative”; he or she is a living, breathing human being. In so many arguments, reasonable people genuinely can and do see things differently. Even the smartest and most self-aware amongst us falls prey to biased thinking; this means you and I, too. But even when someone else is genuinely, indisputably wrong, I ask you:
For decades, medical science tended to treat the human body as a collection of distinct organs and functions. A stomach was just a stomach and it was viewed in isolation from the brain and nervous system function and immune response. Increasingly, we’re discovering the many ways in which these complex, biological systems are all inter-connected.
Similarly, you and I are not merely two, distinct people going about our lives; our fates are intertwined in ways we are just beginning to understand. We inhabit not merely our own little slices of the earth, but the whole planet together. We will go further and be happier when we see each and everyone we share this planet with as belonging to “our” team, as someone to be looked after and cared for accordingly.
Competitive sports require teams; on any given day, there must be a winner and a loser. But for the most part, the rest of our lives are not meant to be lived this way. Human beings are far more alike than different. We share 99.9% of our DNA with one another; we breathe the same air and bleed the same blood. At the end of the day, we all want the same things; to be happy and to live a meaningful life.
So by all means, vote. Our elected officials do important work, and voting — even within a flawed system — is still a privilege to be reckoned with. Or don’t.
But what no matter which candidate wins or loses tonight, I invite you to recognize that we are not truly Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, Christians or Muslims, godly or godless, men or women, gay or straight, patriots or traitors, rich or poor. These labels may occasionally serve a useful purpose, but far more often than not, they merely serve to separate us from one another, to obscure our true selves and to perpetuate conflict.
No matter what happens on this or any night, I invite you to remember that We Are All Human.
And we’re in this together.