‘Us’ versus ‘them’

Something that has troubled and puzzled me for a long time, going back at least to when I first began my Ph.D. work—this would be the program that was not the right program for me and not the one I ultimately received my doctorate from—is the question of in-groups versus out-groups, more colloquially, the “us” versus “them” mentality that I associated with the hierarchically invidious monism of authoritarian populism in my dissertation.[1]

It’s not a precise match, actually. Elizabeth Minnich coined the term hierarchically invidious monism because, she argued,[2] in the so-called dualities of rich versus poor, or “us” versus “them,” or white versus Black, male versus female, or healthy versus unhealthy, and so on, one side is always preferred and the people associated with that side are accordingly privileged and empowered over and against people associated with the other side.[3] The words binary or dualism, by contrast, imply parity between these alternatives.[4]

Hierarchically invidious monism can occur within groups, countries if you will, as a way of subdividing those groups and pitting subgroups against each other and thus diverting attention from the crimes of the rich, enabling the powerful, who are expected to impose “order,” to escape scrutiny.[5] The powerful thereby face a different, more civil rather than criminal, form of so-called “justice.”[6] In contrast, the poor, especially of color, are stigmatized, scapegoated, and made to suffer from a grossly inadequate social safety net that preserves rather than relieves their condition, to serve as an example to the rest of society of what happens to people who are alleged to not conform.[7] Hence, indeed,

A core element of the American credo is that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.[8]

When we claim that the poor do not “conform,” we elide that they do not have the opportunity to “conform” and therefore have little alternative to some form of “deviance,”[9] often understood as “crime,”[10] in order to blame the poor, to blame the victims of an extractive elite.[11] We evade a responsibility to properly investigate and remedy the causes of this “crime,” even up to the system of social organization itself,[12] almost certainly because to do so would more correctly assign blame.

All this is the “us,” here comprised principally of able-bodied wealthy white males of traditionally normalized sexual orientation and gender identity, versus “them,” of everyone else within patriarchal society. Its power is enormous. Something that perplexed me when I read Jack Holland’s Misogyny was his point that we associate intellectuality with superiority with men and sensuality with inferiority with women.[13] When lust is an elemental source of pleasure for humanity, I wondered, why would we choose to stigmatize it?

Holland seems to have understood Plato correctly[14] but that question still gnaws at me. The desire for power (“us”) over others (“them”) seemingly exceeds even that of sex as mutual pleasure, often instead perverting it as rape and sexual assault in a power relationship that vegetarian ecofeminists and animal liberation activists associate also with our treatment of the planetary ecosystem and with our treatment of nonhuman animals.[15]

Nonhuman animals are all around us. They are part of the ecosystem that sustains us. But interpreting “them” (bears, lions, and wolves, for example, or a purportedly fearsome, “evil” wilderness[16]) as threatening “us,” we choose an inherently hostile relationship of domination over them.[17] With environmental calamity, including the climate crisis, all around us, it is amply evident that this choice has not worked out well. Yet we seemingly can conceive of nothing else.

A unified “us” versus a threatening “them” worked awfully well for George W. Bush, who parlayed the 9/11 attacks into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, twenty years later, remain at least partly unresolved. War seems all too often to reduce to the violent manifestation of an ongoing contest between elites over who will control what territory, who will control what people on that territory, and who will control what resources on that territory,[18] but the lens of “us” versus “them” frames that contest as “good” versus “evil,” while members of subaltern groups,[19] the “other” to the rich and powerful “us,” die fighting to resolve the disputes of the very same rich and powerful.[20] That evil seems boundless both in the threats that we are led to perceive and in the much more real consequences, including, potentially, human extinction, that we now face.

This is the “us,” here comprised of the people in an entirely socially constructed “nation,”[21] posed on fraudulent terms against the people of other entirely socially constructed “nations” and against life itself. It is no less fraudulent, no less criminal, than the patriarchal “us” versus “them” within societies.

So it caught my attention that chimpanzees exhibit similar behavior, uniting against a perceived “other,” in a behavior attributed to intergroup competition[22] that necessarily assumes scarce resources[23] which must be hoarded and protected. That we might reach this point through evolution[24] seems to an important degree to undermine a presumption that we have not always chosen that inherently hostile relationship of domination over each other, nonhuman animals, and the environment, that once upon a time, we chose a more harmonious relationship,[25] a presumption that seemingly relies upon an extrapolation from contemporary remaining indigenous societies to prehistoric societies, and that led me to understand our present system of social organization as having arisen in the neolithic, as we settled on parcels of land that were marked off from each other, and organized into larger societies with centralized authority. At the very least, there is more nuance[26] to that notion of prehistoric harmony than I have previously been prepared to acknowledge.

We cannot be certain of that past. Thinking the roots of “us” versus “them” thinking lay there, I sought to explore it as an initial dissertation topic in the Ph.D. program from which I did eventually receive my doctorate, but the department chair, JoAnn McAllister, wisely warned me off of it.[27] She was right: Our understanding of prehistoric social organization is constrained by its reliance on archaeology, often of funerary remains and garbage piles. One can only get so far with such evidence.

Our answer, if it even exists, lies in the future. And it will depend on escaping that “us” versus “them” mentality.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  2. [2]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  3. [3]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005). This somewhat echoes the argument of Lorraine Code, who argued that such pairings are inherently patriarchal in What Can She Know? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1991). Also see George Lakoff, Moral Politics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002).
  4. [4]Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Transforming Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2005).
  5. [5]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  6. [6]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  7. [7]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor (New York: Basic, 1995).
  8. [8]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  9. [9]Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 181-190.
  10. [10]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  11. [11]David Benfell, “Blaming the victims, capitalist-style,” Not Housebroken, August 15, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/15/blaming-the-victims-capitalist-style/; David Benfell, “We are reaping what we have sown,” Not Housebroken, November 28, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/11/21/we-are-reaping-what-we-have-sown/
  12. [12]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  13. [13]Jack Holland, Misogyny (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006).
  14. [14]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  15. [15]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? (New York: Lantern 2004); Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.
  16. [16]Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Perseus, 1996)
  17. [17]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991); Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Perseus, 1996).
  18. [18]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” Not Housebroken, March 19, 2012, https://disunitedstates.org/2012/03/19/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/; David Benfell, “Things I shouldn’t have to say about borders,” December 26, 2018, https://disunitedstates.org/2018/12/26/things-i-shouldnt-have-to-say-about-borders/
  19. [19]David Benfell, “Keeping the poor, poor, even when they serve their country,” Not Housebroken, May 27, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/05/27/keeping-the-poor-poor-even-when-they-serve-their-country/
  20. [20]DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight,” Washington Post, June 16, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/15/shoot-them-for-what-how-muhammad-ali-won-his-greatest-fight/
  21. [21]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006).
  22. [22]Kyoto University, “Chimpanzees unite against a common enemy,” Phys.org, February 24, 2021, https://phys.org/news/2021-02-chimpanzees-common-enemy.html
  23. [23]Riane Eisler acknowledges some scarcity in the environment but argues that much is artificial, a self-serving creation that prioritizes elite priorities, including war, over social good and a tool for the elite to further subjugate the oppressed, in The Real Wealth of Nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007). U.S. military spending, a priority over social safety net spending, is an example. I am aware that other challenges also exist but have not studied the matter.
  24. [24]Kyoto University, “Chimpanzees unite against a common enemy,” Phys.org, February 24, 2021, https://phys.org/news/2021-02-chimpanzees-common-enemy.html
  25. [25]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD, Altamira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University, 2008); Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  26. [26]Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
  27. [27]There is more to this story than I know. JoAnn McAllister seems to have been somehow involved in or, at the very least, to have quite some knowledge of a controversy surrounding Riane Eisler’s sources in The Chalice and the Blade (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) and retains some anger about it. Eisler’s work was one of my starting points but McAllister’s intervention was timely: Nearly nothing I was finding in a literature search was matching up with Eisler’s account of the intrusion of a “Kurgan” (“kurgan” actually refers to a burial style common in the Transcaucasia region in prehistoric times) dominator society into a Mediterranean partnership society. Something went very wrong here and McAllister was right to dissuade me from my then-chosen topic for more than one reason.

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