• Gregory Z. Smith

Combatting "Us and Them"

Mayor Perea of Sunland Park with Councilor Smith of Las Cruces in Juárez

It is natural to have some discomfort around those who look or act differently from that to which we are accustomed. I say it is "natural" because the basic human response is instinctual, just like that of our distant relatives in the animal kingdom. So, we can let instinct rule and be confined to lives that revert to basic, animal responses, or we can use our stronger intelligence to achieve higher wisdom and to climb to greater heights than any other creatures on our planet.

In the animal world, those that are different may be, in a wide range of ways, threats to survival, and thus, the ability to survive results from instinctive behaviors. So, the runt in the litter gets neglected until it dies, and the weakest chick gets pushed out of the nest. When different animals approach, fight or flight is often the natural response. If one isn't running away, one is preparing to kill or chase away the intruder. I have seen enough human behavior, especially when I was teaching young people, to see that our natural inclinations are not so different from those of the other members of the animal kingdom.

We do have the benefits of language, written and spoken, and education, in schools and in relationships, to help us override instinctive behaviors. We have technologies, digital and mechanical, to advance our capabilities and to provide access to thousands of years of accumulated human knowledge and experience. We no longer need the survival instincts that brought our distant ancestors through times of famine and other threats. Yet, instinct is not all that deep below the surface, despite all of our advances.

So, we have to learn to override the fear of those who are different. We have to see the benefits of working together to survive now, as opposed to chasing someone else away from the food or shelter then. Most of human history has been a progression away from instinctual behavior, but the irony is that, even as far as we have come, we seem to be slipping backward at this point in time. Capabilities which we have to separate ourselves from the rest of the animal world have been folded into a toxic mix of ways to trigger unnecessary instinctual responses.

What we are seeing is sometimes referred to "tribal" behavior. Those in the tribe we know are "us." Those outside that tribe are "them." It can also be likened to "pack" mentality. The pack is safe, even if we have to sacrifice self-determination and higher level thinking skills to maintain our pack membership.

The result of allowing ourselves to think in terms of "us and them" is that we revert to instinctive survival behaviors. We justify what we believe keeps "us" alive and what keeps "them" incapable of hurting us. We think of ourselves as human and them as animal. We deserve life and good things; they deserve nothing; sometimes, not even life.

Such thinking has to be combatted.

Unless there seems to be a good reason for it, I no longer answer race questions that distinguish any of us as anything other than members of the same human race. I avoid religion questions, and I no longer belong to either of the major political parties. As interesting as I believe my family history is, I try to avoid talking about it if there is any chance that where my ancestors lived may contribute to some "tribal" categorization. As fun as it may be to cheer for a team or to support particular groups, I try to keep my encouragement for the endeavors, for success, for good sportsmanship, and for being better at being human.

When someone wants to load a group down with a negative (or positive) characteristic, I tend to suggest larger, more inclusive narratives. When fear and anger seep into conversations about "them," I tend to suggest commonalities and bridges, instead of differences and walls. When simple, sound-bite solutions are suggested, I tend to try to find ways to track toward more extensive comprehension.

We have to emphasize that which makes us human. We have to cherish it, grow it, and show it.

I love my dog. She has been trained to behave in a somewhat civilized manner, but she also quickly reverts to instinctive behavior if there is not sufficient interaction with humans or if an opportunity to be wild presents itself. I love her dearly, but I have no desire to be as ruled by my instincts as she is by hers.

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