The Plague of the “Us” vs. “Them” Mentality

A quick essay about an issue that is very relevant today: the “Us” vs. “Them” mentality. 

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of research on current events and international relations, and I’ve found a recurring problem that creates much of the political, social, and religious tension in the world today.

From many of today’s international conflicts, there arises a sense of “Us” vs. “Them”. What I mean by that is many of today’s issues involve different nations, regions, or groups of people opposing each other simply because of political, religious, and ideological differences.

Instead of accepting or even embracing differences in mentality around the world, fear and hatred dominate people’s minds and create unnecessary, sometimes violent international conflicts.

One of the most prominent areas of international conflict today is the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The main goal of ISIS is to establish an Islamic caliphate, or create a unified area of Islamic brotherhood that resembles the structure of the Middle-East back when the prophet Muhammad lived. Yes, ISIS goes about achieving this goal in a violent, aggressive way that pretty much begs for international opposition. But what’s the real reason Americans are so afraid of ISIS? (I personally would not consider them a terrorist group, but a political faction that uses terrorist tactics to gain influence).

Americans have this idea ingrained in our heads that anything different from our own ideology is the enemy. We define other nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religious backgrounds based on their differences from us, and we identify ourselves by how we differ from others around the world. In other words, we are US because we are not THEM.

I don’t think it is the political aims of ISIS that scares Americans today; I think it is the fact that ISIS represents an Islamic group that desires a lifestyle that is different from what we have here in America. ISIS wants an Islamic caliphate, they do not want democracy, or a free, capitalist market. Their social and political goals do not resemble ordinary goals here in America, and that makes Americans nervous.

This tendency to focus on differences reveals itself when considering the Cold War era for example. The main goal of the United States was to prevent the spread of communism. Why? Not because communism is a dysfunctional socioeconomic system, but because it is different from capitalism. News flash: JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS DIFFERENT DOESN’T MEAN IT IS BAD.

Consider China’s position in the world today. As an enormous economic superpower, there is discussion over whether China will surpass The U.S. as a world hegemond in the near future. While China has the economic potential to expand its influence and capabilities, some argue that China will never be able to make enough true allies because too many of the world’s nations are skeptical of China’s ideological policies.

First of all, I believe everyone is afraid of China’s growing power and influence (The U.S. is probably nervous about so many European countries jumping on board with China’s new development bank). Second, many are skeptical of China simply because they do not follow the westernized framework of liberalism, capitalism, democracy, and individualism. Again, people fear China because they are different.

I just attended a debate regarding U.S. relations with Cuba, and I found the same themes in the discussion. The reasons for the U.S.-Cuba Embargo are rooted in the Eisenhower era, when the Cuban revolution was at its height and Fidel Castro still instilled fear in people’s minds.

Granted, the driving force behind the embargo was that the Cuban government owed the U.S. money, so it was mainly an economic strategy. But over the last half a century, the embargo has transformed into much more than that. It has served as a social and cultural barrier that restricts Americans from having the freedom to travel to or trade with a nation that could definitely benefit from improved relations with the U.S..

Cuba needs economic reform, and keeping the embargo in place clearly will not improve the situation in Cuba because it will not change anything. But the Cuban government is too stubborn to accept Obama’s attempts at cooperation simply because of outdated political and ideological differences. If the Cuban government embraced the U.S. as an ally and trade parter despite differing social and political policies, I think Cuba may enjoy many benefits from the relationship.

Basically, I believe people today are too hung up on cultural, social, political, and ideological differences, and this prevents everyone from coexisting peacefully. To speak in technical terms, too many people suffer from a mixture of Ethnocentrism (judging other cultures only through the perspective of one’s own culture) and Egocentrism (viewing one’s own culture as superior to others). Rather than trying to understand other cultures, people distance themselves from those who are different.

We need to stop defining ourselves based on how we are different from others, we need to embrace other cultures and try to be more open-minded when it comes to international conflicts. I’m not saying that an open mind will solve all of the world’s problems, but it may possibly bring more cooperation to the world.

So that’s my rant for the day. I tried to be as concise as possible (872 words is concise, right?) and I hope this was somewhat interesting to read. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “The Plague of the “Us” vs. “Them” Mentality

  1. Peter Doherty

    Joseph Campbell once said, “We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet.”

    This is great, Gabby. I loved reading it.

    Here’s a (rather lengthy) excerpt from “The Power of Myth” that speaks to the very issue you raise. One of the sad ironies of this passage, however, is that near the end of it, Campbell asserts that the Founding Fathers of the United States created a country that was not bound by the European tradition of local tribes battling it out – the “us” against “them” concept – but rather based on the notion that, through reason, all people could become unified; ‘out of many, one’ – E Pluribus Unum.

    How far we’ve fallen.

    I’ll let Campbell and Moyers say the rest.


    CAMPBELL: The main motifs of the myths are the same, and they have always been the same. If you want to find your own mythology, the key is with what society do you associate? Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field. Then they come into collision and relationship, and they amalgamate, and you get a more complex mythology. But today there are no boundaries. The only mythology that is valid today is the mythology of the planet— and we don’t have such a mythology. The closest thing I know to a planetary mythology is Buddhism, which sees all beings as Buddha beings. The only problem is to come to the recognition of that. There is nothing to do. The task is only to know what is, and then to act in relation to the brotherhood of all of these beings.
    MOYERS: Brotherhood?
    CAMPBELL: Yes. Now brotherhood in most of the myths I know of is confined to a bounded community. In bounded communities, aggression is projected outward. For example, the ten commandments say, “Thou shalt not kill.” Then the next chapter says, “Go into Canaan and kill everybody in it.” That is a bounded field. The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, and the out-group is totally other. This is the sense of the word “gentile”— the person is not of the same order.
    MOYERS: And unless you wear my costume, we are not kin.
    CAMPBELL: Yes. Now, what is a myth? The dictionary definition of a myth would be stories about gods. So then you have to ask the next question: What is a god? A god is a personification of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and in the universe— the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animate the life of the world. But also there are myths and gods that have to do with specific societies or the patron deities of the society. In other words, there are two totally different orders of mythology. There is the mythology that relates you to your nature and to the natural world, of which you’re a part. And there is the mythology that is strictly sociological, linking you to a particular society. You are not simply a natural man, you are a member of a particular group. In the history of European mythology, you can see the interaction of these two systems. Usually the socially oriented system is of a nomadic people who are moving around, so you learn that’s where your center is, in that group. The nature-oriented mythology would be of an earth-cultivating people. Now, the biblical tradition is a socially oriented mythology. Nature is condemned. In the nineteenth century, scholars thought of mythology and ritual as an attempt to control nature. But that is magic, not mythology or religion. Nature religions are not attempts to control nature but to help you put yourself in accord with it. But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tension, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annihilation of native people. And the accent here separates us from nature…

    MOYERS: As we sit here and talk, there is one story after another of car bombings in Beirut— by the Muslims of the Christians, by the Christians of the Muslims, and by the Christians of the Christians. It strikes me that Marshall McLuhan was right when he said that television has made a global village of the world— but he didn’t know the global village would be Beirut. What does that say to you?
    CAMPBELL: It says to me that they don’t know how to apply their religious ideas to contemporary life, and to human beings rather than just to their own community. It’s a terrible example of the failure of religion to meet the modern world. These three mythologies are fighting it out. They have disqualified themselves for the future.
    MOYERS: What kind of new myth do we need?
    CAMPBELL: We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. A model for that is the United States. Here were thirteen different little colony nations that decided to act in the mutual interest, without disregarding the individual interests of any one of them.
    MOYERS: There is something about that on the Great Seal of the United States.
    CAMPBELL: That’s what the Great Seal is all about. I carry a copy of the Great Seal in my pocket in the form of a dollar bill. Here is the statement of the ideals that brought about the formation of the United States. Look at this dollar bill. Now here is the Great Seal of the United States. Look at the pyramid on the left. A pyramid has four sides. These are the four points of the compass. There is somebody at this point, there’s somebody at that point, and there’s somebody at this point. When you’re down on the lower levels of this pyramid, you will be either on one side or on the other. But when you get up to the top, the points all come together, and there the eye of God opens.
    MOYERS: And to them it was the god of reason.
    CAMPBELL: Yes. This is the first nation in the world that was ever established on the basis of reason instead of simply warfare. These were eighteenth-century deists, these gentlemen. Over here we read, “In God We Trust.” But that is not the god of the Bible. These men did not believe in a Fall. They did not think the mind of man was cut off from God. The mind of man, cleansed of secondary and merely temporal concerns, beholds with the radiance of a cleansed mirror a reflection of the rational mind of God. Reason puts you in touch with God. Consequently, for these men, there is no special revelation anywhere, and none is needed, because the mind of man cleared of its fallibilities is sufficiently capable of the knowledge of God. All people in the world are thus capable because all people in the world are capable of reason. All men are capable of reason. That is the fundamental principle of democracy. Because everybody’s mind is capable of true knowledge, you don’t have to have a special authority, or a special revelation telling you that this is the way things should be.

    1. This is an awesome passage! I thought this was the most interesting part:
      “But when nature is thought of as evil, you don’t put yourself in accord with it, you control it, or try to, and hence the tension, the anxiety, the cutting down of forests, the annihilation of native people. And the accent here separates us from nature…”
      You can juxtapose this with how people treat each other as well. When people try to control others instead of living in harmony it only leads to fear and isolation. This is exactly what humans do to the natural world; we try to manipulate it to benefit us instead of embracing it and letting it be.
      I also like that Campbell mentioned Buddhism, because I recently learned about that tradition in a World Religions class. Buddhism is fascinating because it isn’t so much a religion as it is a peaceful way of life that promotes accepting others and living in harmony with ALL living things. Good stuff.

  2. Humanism is another movement or philosophy that tries to unite people through common morals rather than focusing on the differences between us. Too bad that will never work! Sorry, I’m pessimistic on that point, which is paradoxical since I also believe in people rather than gods. So it goes. (Nod to Vonnegut, a humanist.)

  3. Dan.e Boucher

    This is the first nation in the world that was ever established on the basis of reason instead of simply warfare.

    How far we have come from these ideals. Armed to the teeth ,the US is the singular most violent and self imposing country in the world. Yet, the American way of life that our leaders are so eager to impose, contradicts the very liberties embraced by the founding fathers. Live and let live is more admirable than the right to bear arms, and impose will based on financial and ideological desires . We are a shoot first and reason after society, St Louis, Baltimore, bear this out. While we consider ourselves ” the great society” best we progress beyond the New Stone Age before anointing ourselves the keepers of the flame.

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