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Diane Mufson: 'Us vs. them' is a no-win proposition

Nov. 13, 2013 @ 10:04 AM

One of my favorite theater shows, recently revived, is "South Pacific," set in the Pacific Islands toward the end of World War II. The show's music is memorable, but one song, "You Have to Be Carefully Taught," still sends a relevant message about prejudice and viewing people unlike us as unacceptably different.

One stanza of this song says, "You've got to be taught before it's too late, before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate..." In other words, adults make sure to pass on their prejudices, helping to perpetuate the concept of "Us vs. Them."

While some social scientists hypothesize that identifying with people with similar backgrounds has been a historical necessity for self-preservation, in our highly inter-connected 21st Century world, the Us vs. Them dichotomy is a no-win mentality.

When people suffer social or economic failures, they often assign negative or inferior status to those they view as dissimilar. Positive identity is given to those who share the same beliefs and activities.

There is nothing wrong with feeling a close link with those with whom we have many things in common. The problem occurs when we view others who are unlike us as having no redeeming qualities and not worthy of life.

"Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others," by David Livingstone Smith, is one book that addresses the way we rationalize believing that those who are different from us deserve a terrible fate.

History is replete with sad examples of "Us hating Them" mentality. In the past hundred years, we have witnessed Hitler and his followers exterminate six million Jews, the Japanese attack our nation, Catholics and Protestants murder each other in Ireland, ethnic rivalries in Rwanda and Middle East hatred for everyone different from themselves.

Americans view Muslims as part of a single religion and yet Sunnis and Shiites in various countries, including Iraq, continue to murder each other regularly. Syria's Muslims, Christians and Alawites are locked in a death spiral of Us vs. Them.

In case we Americans want to believe that we are above the Us vs. Them mentality, just look at our history. Despite our wonderful Thanksgiving story, our forefathers worked to annihilate or relocate Native Americans. There is also our history of lynching African Americans and later just blatant discrimination simply because they were of a different race.

It is not just a matter of historical, ethnic or racial animosities, but current and political ones as well. Congress currently exemplifies all that is wrong with the Us vs. Them concept. Whether or not you like President Obama, he was correct in indicating that America is not just a collection of red or blue states, but the United States of America. Just think of how much could have been accomplished had the recent Congressional Us vs. Them stalemate been avoided.

There is no problem in being proud of one's heritage, ethnicity, religion, race or geographic area, but that does not give people excuses to vilify, hurt or even kill those with dissimilar backgrounds. West Virginians know that people from around our country often see us as second-class citizens, even viewing us as accurately represented by the now thankfully canceled show, "Buckwild."

The Us vs. Them division may work for some sporting and team events, but in the bigger scheme of life and when carried to great lengths, it is a no-win mentality.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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