Just Us and no Them

One of the key protocols of patriarchy (the ideology of the angry father-figure) is the separation of the world, or any microcosm within the world in terms of “us” and “them”. We humans love to frame things in dualistic terms (such as yin and yang or good and bad), but this is one dichotomy that I would argue we would be well served to rid from ourselves, and in so doing, rid from our greater culture. Doing so, I believe, would go a long way to finally eradicating the patriarchal “virus” that manages somehow to propagate itself from generation to generation. As a parent and a progressive-minded person, propagation to the next generation is something I think about a lot.

It is the words of Jesus (corroborated by the Biblical accounts of Luke and Matthew) to “love thy enemy” which to me is akin to saying there are no “them” that you can happily hate and only “us” that you need to “love” or at least understand and walk metaphorically in their shoes.

Somehow the sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica came up in the comments to my last post. One of the show’s more disturbing plot twists was to have the humans (the good guys) subjugated by the android Cylons resort to suicide bombing to kill fellow humans who were collaborating with the bad guy Cylon androids (and some perhaps innocent bystanders in the process). Human characters that you may have some sympathy for make the fateful decision to engage in this profoundly nihilistic act for the greater good of saving humanity from complete annihilation. Arguing the morality of the act is not the point here. What I’m trying to get at is that the writer’s of Battlestar Galactica are looking at everyone as part of “us” (motivated by real fears) rather than breaking out some people as “them”, beyond the pale of any kind of sympathy or concern.

So in our real world, is the fundamentalist religious insurgent a very disturbing one of “us” (fellow member of the human race) or monster “them” with no remaining humanity to speak of? That is perhaps the most extreme case of framing someone as the other, but is our human species and its evolution served by such a dichotomy?

Pulling in from that extreme, many of us humans seem to indulge in perhaps more mundane “us and them” framing. I’m thinking here about white people versus people of color, rich versus poor and men versus women. Defining out groups supports the “path of least resistance” that helps propagate hierarchical power-over patriarchal thinking from one generation to the next. Parents of privilege wrestle with the fear of their kids being the victims of violent out-group (them) members. Though arguably realistic and pragmatic fears, still living based on fear, which generally includes defining “us and them” moves us away from even trying to understand and fully sympathize with those we are defining as “them”. It is much less psychically disturbing (at least in the short run) to write these others off.

Though you may not agree with my perhaps arguably “bleeding heart liberal” take on this, most progressive people understand the moral problems of “us and them” framing in these circumstances.

That all said and shifting the focus somewhat, I as a “lefty parent”, thinking about the dynamics of relationships between adults and youth, see the “us and them” framing continue to be propagated as one flavor of this patriarchal conventional wisdom.

So many of “us” adults, when we talk about creating effective educational venues for our youth, seem to display a great mistrust of the motives and ability of our youth to chart their own courses or participate in the design and governance of their schools and other educational venues. I hear or read many teachers, parents or other adults put forth the conventional wisdom that if adults don’t keep the upper hand when dealing with youth then those youth will “walk all over us”. Or we say that young people cannot possibly fathom most of the ramifications of their actions until they have somehow crossed over into adulthood. I continue to witness this kind of thinking and have come to view it as an “us and them” framing, that hinders rather than facilitates our path forward.

The Beatles “all you need is love” does not quite cut it here. It is possible to love someone and still exercise power over them. Though some of us humans can feel hate for racial or religious out-groups that motivates us treating them like others, husbands can love their wives and parents their children but still feel the need (out of love) to coercively manipulate the other’s behavior. If “father knows best”, then shouldn’t father have all the tools in his tool belt to make it so?

I find it a disturbing instance of “us and them” thinking to see the way some adults roll their eyes and talk about “teenagers” being completely at the mercy of and thinking with their hormones. I think that does a real disservice to our older youth and is reminiscent of how men have in the past (and in some cases still today) characterized women as inferior because of their hormones, PMS and “hysteria”. It is one thing to understand developmentally that a human being during the years of their older youth go through puberty and hormonal changes that can have an affect on behavior and values. It is a much different thing to believe that older youth cannot be responsible for their behavior and thus need strong external guidance and control.

As I have borne witness to before at Unitarian-Universalist youth camps (see my post “Camps, Cons & Compasses”), if older youth are consistently acknowledged as capable people (like “us” adults but a bit younger) they generally raise their behavior to be consistent with that characterization. This seems to be a well kept secret to most adults, particularly to a lot of teachers and administrators who work with youth in school settings.

And from what I’ve seen this is reinforced by our popular culture in television and movies in their depictions of high school. I recommend you take notice of scenes in TV dramas and comedies set in conventional high school classrooms, hallways, or counseling offices and apply your humanistic lens to how the adult staff interacts with the students. To me the portrayal is generally overly directive and disrespectful, with the adults constantly micromanaging the communication and other behavior, including barking orders, doling out rewards, issuing coercive threats and never querying the students as to their thoughts or feelings about the rules or agenda. These types of interactions between adults and youth in these fictional settings are so ubiquitous that I suspect many adult viewers accept that there is no other way that a high school could be run.

I guess an “us and them” framing makes for compelling tension in fiction to build ones narrative around, as your young main characters struggle against “the man” or “the system” or their clueless parents. But in real life I think it is much better as the exception than the rule. As social animals, there is so much more we humans can accomplish when we start from a collective covenant of respect and trust.

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