Thursday, August 11, 2005

Us vs. Not-Us

Important but unrelated note: Barry Eisler has 3 guest posts at Buzz, Balls, and Hype on self-marketing for writers: Advances - the New Marketing Budget, Recruiting Your Publisher, and The Writer as Entrepreneur. They are full of great advice and things to think about. If you haven't already, stop by and read them. They're definitely worth the time.

Now for today's topic: Us vs. Not-Us

Most people say Us vs. Them, but I think Not-Us is more accurate. Since the very first predatory amoeba evolved, the primary defensive instinct has been fear of Not-Us. At first, it was just individuals avoiding or fighting anything that was not Me. As the ages rolled by, animals evolved more social lives and the distinction became Us and Not-Us. That instinct still drives us today. It may be one of the most fundamental instincts we have.

Individuals, families, clans, tribes, neighborhoods, towns, regions, nations, religions, ethnic groups, at every level you can see suspicion and distrust based on nothing more than membership in the group. Assumptions about those that are Not-Us can often drive us to acts that we would never consider if they involved members of Us. This is what terrorists use as justification for their acts. "They are Not-Us, therefore they are evil and must be destroyed." By the same token, this is what led to unfortunate violence and suspicion of people of Middle-Eastern descent after 9/11. Even people who had been friends and neighbors for decades suddenly became, if not active enemies, suspicious and paranoid about each other.

Us vs. Not-Us is also the basis for any war you care to name. The only way a soldier can kill another human and remain sane is to distance themselves from the enemy, the Not-Us. Since they are Not-Us, they can be considered as something other than a loving father, mother, or child, something less than ouselves or our family members, an object rather than a person.

I fear that there is no cure for this behavior. Humans are, and have always been, possibly the most vulnerable of all animals on this Earth. We have no natural defenses. We are soft-skinned, small-toothed, weak, and non-venomous. The only defenses we have are the ability to identify threats at a distance and react to them by fight or flight. This is how we have survived for millions of years. I believe this is so ingrained into us that we will never be able to fully overcome it.

The next time you wonder why people act the way they do, why they lash out against innocent people, why they react with unreasoning hatred, even violence, think about Us vs. Not-Us. You will be surprised at how often their seemingly bewildering actions are an instinctive reflex, a defense against the unknown, a pre-emptive first strike launched to prevent whatever evil Not-Us might be plotting.

I find this very sad and disheartening. Recognizing that we are not as rational and thoughtful as we like to believe is scary. We may wear fancy clothes and fly spaceships, but the jungle is never far beneath our skins. There is only a very thin veneer between civilization and savagery, and we puncture it far too often.

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