Them and Us? It could be kids talking about their parents, it could be groups of friends talking about each other, it could be one team talking about another team, one work department about another, workers about managers/owners, citizens about politicians, Leo’s about Virgo’s, the employed about the unemployed, the old about the young, city dwellers about country folk, the rich about the poor, the religious about the non-religious, the clever about the not-so-clever, the ugly about the beautiful, the conceited about the humble etc.
This phrase is not merely a marker of endless possible diversity; that phrase would be something like ‘these and those’. No, there is a sense of inside and outside with this phrase, of good and bad, of those who are with you and those who are against you. This phrase must have been in use since the dawn of civilizations.
Nowadays perhaps, most of us would likely see potential problems with this kind of phrase. Them and Us gives rise to Them vs. Us, which in turn gives rise to Them or Us. Even for the latter, with its sinister overtones, one could easily argue for a moral rightness. Indeed, it’s a slippery slope: from team games, to war games, to genocide! And, regrettably, it’s a well-worn path in terms of human history.
In debates about immigration and the value of immigration, assimilation etc, the issue of ‘them and us’ is an ever-present force. Indeed, the willingness with which those opposing immigration latch onto the ‘them and us’ argument as a means to denigrate and degrade people only goes to show that we must be extremely cautious in buying into any narrative that it generates.
Narratives can be beguiling, narratives can bewitch, narratives can raise the sense of threat to significant levels only on the basis of fear and hearsay. With this discourse, the emphasis is clearly put on the negatives attached to ‘them’. And the response must equally forcefully be to attempt to drag the debate back to the ‘us’. Take that beam out of your own eye, and all that.
In these debates, the ‘us’ becomes homogenized all too easily; it becomes the hidden, undeclared norm against which all other things are measured. This is not a new phenomenon. If we look back to the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, you see that Europe considered itself anything from mildly to vastly superior to the rest of the world.
This superiority only became intensified with the first blossomings of science and technology. There was a sliding scale of superiority, with the scale of the inferior beginning usually with one’s neighbour and stretching all the way down the tree to the level of ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’. Without question, this national, cultural, racial and even ‘European’ superiority fed into the rise of fascism and nationalism in the first half of 19th Century Europe.
However, the ethnocentric view was challenged, especially post-WWII and even overthrown for a view that showed that all societies reflect similar internal dynamics of culture, of conflict, of inequality, and of power struggle, even if they are different relative to each other in terms of wealth and technology. Indeed, one of the key insights of the last century has been that all societies function equally through complex systems of signs, symbols and signification (see semiotics).
Today, however, I clearly see the same old narrative returning. Today, the emphasis has shifted to speaking in terms of an ‘economic superiority’, which is unsurprising given that it’s easier to defend than a laid-bare cultural superiority.
So, citizens of some countries are portrayed as ‘welfare shoppers’, while the suggested response has been that the West should also shop around for the best immigrants: “Are you an immigrant bargain? Do you already have a paid-for education, have you been fed and watered up to the age of productive self-sufficiency? Great – we’ll have you, thank you very much!”
However, behind the economic argument is the thinly or sometimes not-so-thinly veiled cultural superiority argument. And this cultural superiority is, alarmingly, further disguised as a human-rights concern. Any lack of human rights in some other countries is used to justify a new kind of cultural (and moral) superiority. Without the human rights shield, this age-old superiority claim would be utterly indefensible in the modern world. Talk about stealing the clothes of one’s opponents!!
From this ‘human-rights standpoint’ there emerge some very bizarre and contradictory statements in regard to immigration: We cannot accept women from these countries because their culture denies them rights; We cannot accept refugees of war because these are citizens that have failed to stop the wars in their countries; we cannot allow them to enjoy the justice of Western democracy because they have either been the victims of injustice and persecution in their own country or they have failed to stop it.
While the arguments are rarely put so baldly, this is what they amount to: A person who is fleeing insecurity, persecution, corruption, extremism etc., is held to be responsible for the very things they are fleeing.
Europe must not be allowed to slide back into this kind of cultural superiority. The way it was overcome previously was to understand our own cultures more critically, to understand that the ‘Us’ is not homogenous, that the ‘Us’ contains both good and bad, both cultured and uncultured, and that if all the citizens of our countries had to be responsible for all the misdeeds of all the other citizens, for all of our history, then NONE of us would come out smelling of roses.
So, let’s be aware in our understanding of diversity, that understanding must begin at home; it begins with a truer understanding of the ‘us’, even before we begin to pass judgment or be critical of the ‘them’.
And let’s be aware that ‘Them and US’ is a natural enough stance of strangers before they have properly got to know each other. However, sometimes our belonging to one group blinds us to things we have in common with other groups.
If we start down the path of Them vs. Us, then we will never get to know the Them, and if allowed to go unchecked, we will almost certainly perish, one way or another, in a Them or Us.
For really, there is no sane denial of the extraordinary evil wrought by mankind in the name of Them and Us. I wonder, have we really grown up or not?