Us Versus Them

You’re having a conversation with someone, or reading something someone’s written, or watching someone on TV, and you’re thinking, “This person is pretty sharp/has interesting ideas/knows what he or she is talking about.” And then the person strays into expressing an opinion about something that he or she knows very little about, but that you happen to be (at least relatively) expert in, and they say something that is just totally, ridiculously, naive.

Maybe you call them on it. Maybe you don’t. It might not be worth it. Maybe the naive thing they said wasn’t just some random opinion, but something that has a lot of emotional resonance with them, for whatever reason. And since they lack the firsthand experience that would allow them to recognize how ridiculous their assertion is, you’re basically counting on an appeal to your authority, or your ability to craft a logical-sounding argument and their willingness to listen to it, if you want to change their mind.

I feel this way when the militarily-astute types I’ve been paying attention to lately start talking about how our current Iraq endeavor is an appropriate step in a grand scheme to “drain the swamp” of Arab terrorism. When you draw them out, their argument basically comes down to a belief that the blunt application of military force will allow us to “win” a cultural/religious war with the whole of the Arab world, or the whole of Islam (they tend not to distinguish between the two), making “them” over to be very much more like “us,” at which point the problem will be solved.

It’s a naive fantasy.

Similarly, when the Prime Minister of Malaysia addresses the opening session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and basically describes a global conspiracy whereby a small group of Jews is pulling the levers of power to keep Muslims down, it comes off as ludicrous. At least, that’s the way Daniel Drezner portrays it here: The state of Islam — 2003. And he has a point. From an outside perspective, those parts of the speech were clearly naive and racist.

Other parts were pretty insightful. The Muslim leaders at the conference ate it up, giving the speech extended ovations.

The cycle continues. I didn’t point to it back in July when it appeared, but I’m reminded of that recent study into the physiological basis of conflict escalation. See this write-up, for example: Too much force may be with you.

Someone pushes us. We push back — harder. At each stage the injuries worsen, the perceived gulf between us and them widens. We care less about those on the other side, are more willing to inflict pain in retaliation.

My son went to a really wonderful preschool. When something like this happened on the playground, this is what the very wise director of that school would do. First, of course, she would intervene to stop the violence. But having used whatever minimum amount of force was needed to achieve that, she wouldn’t follow up with some kind of stern lecture or punishment. Instead, she’d get down on the combatants’ level, and ask one of them (typically, the one who had been responsible for the latest round of escalation) to look at the other one. “Look at his face. What do you think he’s feeling right now?”

We are all connected. There is no them. There’s only us. We will march down this road of escalating violence exactly as long as it takes us to figure that out. Maybe we’ll figure it out today. Maybe we’ll figure it out after some angry preschooler nukes Mecca.

I vote for today.

2 Responses to “Us Versus Them”

  1. Adam Says:

    Beautiful piece, John.

  2. M. Faisal Jawed Says:

    Hi Friends,

    What the Mahathir says is now a days every peaceful person’s heart voice! Angry are only those who got naked by the words of him. The scenario we are facing, full of terror and blood shed of our brother and sisters are due the wrong policies of americans and lust of Israil of “Greater Israil”- what they called.

    Join the movement of peace and got the America’s sons back to their home, they are not to work according to the will of Israil. We are not abide to follow them

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