Us Versus Them, or Not Our Kind
It's all too easy to designate in-groups and out-groups, dehumanizing others
Posted November 6, 2018
My plan was to post a series on personality disorders using Jane Austen’s novels, and I’ll return to this. But given recent events, I’m going to change direction to address the psychology of what we can call “othering,” the viewing of various groups as different and inferior on the part of those who identify with the mainstream. Targets might include queers (including gays and lesbians), African-Americans, Jews, women, Latinos/as—choose your minority. Such attitudes are ultimately responsible for the unacceptable violence that plagues the United States. where horrific events are gradually becoming the backdrop of daily life.
The title for this post is taken from two books: “Us Versus Them” is a chapter in Robert Sapolsky’s magisterial Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, to which the mind-brain information in this post is largely indebted. Kitty Zeldis’s recently published novel, Not Our Kind, eloquently foregrounds the issue of discrimination against “others”; the “thems,” in this case, are Jews. I want to stress that by choosing to focus on anti-Semitism, I’m not making any claims about which groups deserve our attention, and the recent killing of two innocent African-American people in a grocery store is part of a larger history of racism and violence against Black people that has been woven into U. S. history from the get-go. I am, however, paying homage to the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the most deadly act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history.
Psychology has yielded some fairly grim news about othering, about the ease with which we view people as part of an out group and have negative emotions about them. Expose someone to an image of another person for fifty milliseconds (not enough time for conscious processing), and the viewer’s amygdala, a brain area involved in fear and aggression, will activate for other races/ethnicities. The fusiform face area, involved in facial recognition, will activate only for those of their own kind. The brain processes information about gender and social or economic status just as quickly. And such processing can be based on minimal cues about race, ethnicity, and gender.
We come by this tendency to 'other' honestly. It’s the heritage of our evolution, and we share this trait with other great apes.
Babies and children also categorize according to race, although the younger the person, the less likely values will be attached to such othering. Moreover, all the reasons we give for othering, such as Latino/as are taking away jobs from Americans, come after the initial negative judgment, which takes place subconsciously. We hate first, give reasons later.
For humans, the markers of difference can be arbitrary, and indeed, they nearly always are. It is decided that a particular group is “not our kind,” and then any number of features can be identified with them. Let’s take one stereotype, that gay men behave effeminately. Any man who exhibits traits identified as “feminine” (and these can be assessed differently by different groups) might then be judged as gay and other. Or let’s take the biggest non-consequential marker of difference: race. There are just as many genetic differences within a given racial category as there are between races—in other words, there are no significant genetic differences that truly matter in terms of capability, intelligence, range of feeling, and so forth, among different races. If you share ninety-nine percent of your DNA with a chimp, how different can you be from your Jewish, Black, Latina, or queer next-door-neighbor? (The othering of chimps and non-human great apes is another pressing issue, but perhaps more of that in a future post.)
We’re all too prone to a roster of negative feelings for others—hatred, aggression, distrust, and, not to be underestimated, disgust and its bedfellow, contempt. Othering often involves viewing targets as homogenous, stupid, childlike, and, worst of all, less than human. And if we’re prejudiced against one group, we’re more likely to be prejudiced against others. Respect for authority carries great weight, and an influential leader condoning prejudice can create a culture of hatred and violence, as can other kinds of priming that direct our focus to race or ethnicity. Just as we’re negative about others, we tend to be more generous and forgiving with our own kind. We tend to feel more empathy for them. If we watch someone’s hand being poked with a needle, our own hand tenses—but more strongly if the person is of our own race.
I turn now to Not Our Kind, set in 1947 New York. It shares a crucial feature with Jane Austen’s novels: While ostensibly about everyday subjects belonging to a female world—chick lit, the judgment that clouded Austen’s work for a century—it actually touches on universal themes that affect all of us. The story begins with a traffic accident. Eleanor Moskowitz, the Jewish heroine of the novel, emerges with minor injuries, but she’s so shaken up and distraught that Patricia Bellamy, the passenger in the other taxi, invites her to clean up and recover at her nearby apartment. Then, hearing her surname, she realizes Eleanor is Jewish, but it’s too late to retract her invitation.
Patricia Bellamy is no better than she should be, as another writer, Anthony Trollope would have said, with respect to prejudice and anti-Semitism. She is a product of her time and class: a wealthy, upper-class, White, Protestant woman living on the upper east side in New York City. But events conspire to transform her outlook. To begin with, Eleanor’s distress evokes feelings of empathy before prejudice has a chance to suppress such feelings. Contributing to Patricia’s mistake, as well a further undermining her prejudice, Eleanor doesn’t look or act Jewish, or how Patricia thinks Jews ought to look and act.
Patricia’s 13-year-old daughter Margaux quickly takes to Eleanor. At first, on learning that Eleanor is Jewish, she begins to ask rude and probing questions. Eleanor takes these questions seriously and answers with poise, realizing that Margaux asks out of curiosity as well as the wish to annoy her mother. Margaux has displayed bad behavior and hostility ever since she was left with a withered and useless leg from a bout with polio; she’s angry at the world. Margaux sees herself as a “cripple,” an outcast, and if she quickly accepts Eleanor, it’s in part because she knows what it’s like to be different and on the margins; she empathizes. When Patricia sees that Eleanor is the only one who can reach her sullen daughter, she hires Eleanor to tutor Margaux until she’s ready to return to school.
Patricia hasn’t escaped the narrowness of her upbringing, but neither is she entirely closed-minded, as events later prove. Not so for her husband, Wynn, a thorough bigot, who is stubbornly prejudiced against Eleanor. Unlike Patricia, he doesn’t allow experience to change his perceptions, not even witnessing the remarkable transformation Eleanor effects in his beloved daughter. Long after Eleanor has proved herself worthy of gratitude and esteem on the part of the Bellamys, Wynn says to his wife, “I don’t trust her . . . Never did never will.” When Patricia asks what Eleanor has done to merit such distrust, his only answer, “Nothing. Yet. You wait though. You just wait.” True to the pattern of othering multiple groups, Wynn turns out to prejudge and objectify women, just as he does Jews. This becomes increasingly obvious as he experiences failure and a mid-life crisis, and his façade of polite decency crumbles. At a social gathering, Wynn inappropriately touches Eleanor, “as if she were a part of the house, and he owned her too,” Eleanor thinks to herself.
To put this another way, Wynn lacks empathy for Eleanor and others of “her kind” (women, Jews). In a technical sense, empathy means being able to take another’s perspective, to understand what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling, experiencing the latter, to some degree, within yourself. Neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen posits that lack of empathy allows a person to view others as objects ("as if she were a part of the house"), and this enables them to inflict pain; after all, inanimate objects don’t feel anything. Othering—viewing as "us vs. them” or “not our kind”—involves such objectification, grounded in the absence of empathy. The antidote to such poisonous thinking involves anything that encourages perspective taking, including seeing people as individuals rather than members of a group (to Patricia, Eleanor becomes Margaux’s tutor, not some Jewish girl), encountering shared attributes because these make you realize someone is not entirely other (Patricia understands that Eleanor likes many of the things she likes), and feeling that you’re on the same side in a worthy pursuit (such as helping Margaux emerge from her depression). Experiences of this nature enable Patricia to see Eleanor as a person, not an object.
The common denominator of much re-personalizing and un-othering is thinking, raising consciousness about your automatic responses. As noted, othering originates in the amygdala, the part of the brain linked to fear and aggression. But control of the amygdala comes from various areas of the prefrontal cortex, including centers of logic and perspective-taking. Empathy can be automatic (still involving prefrontal activation), but it can and often does involve conscious thought. It’s no accident that the most intelligent, thoughtful, and mentally flexible people in Zeldis’s novel, Eleanor and Patricia’s brother Tom, are the most open minded about many things. (Tom has an openly gay friend and couldn’t care less about his sexual orientation, and he understands that the young avant-garde painter Jackson Pollack, scorned by many, is a genius, even buying one of his paintings!)
Early on in the novel, before she becomes Margaux’s tutor, Eleanor goes to an employment agency where the manager advises her to change her recognizably Jewish name. Rita Burns knows whereof she speaks, for she was Rachel Bernstein before realizing that her Jewish name reduced her chances of getting a job. Eleanor resists the idea: Although she isn’t religious, she feels a cultural connection with her heritage. And more than that, she thinks,
“And then there was something else too, something that emerged only after the war. The news of the camps, the tattoos, the gas chambers, the multitude of tortures tailored and perfected for Jews. Adolf Hitler has systematically tried to annihilate her people. He hadn’t succeeded, but his murderous goal made her want to ally herself more closely with those who’d survived. Moskowitz was shorthand for the connection she felt.”
By associating Eleanor’s wish to keep her name with her personal sense of identification with victims of the Holocaust, Zeldis links the kinds of casual prejudice and indignity that Eleanor has to deal with—such as changing her name—with genocide, and by implication, with all the other atrocities of which we humans are all too capable: Such events can turn a civilized society into a dystopia. This connection between between othering and violence is subtle—these thoughts about the Holocaust are fleeting, and the War doesn’t figure prominently in the novel. Are violence and othering linked elsewhere in the novel? Perhaps, but no spoilers here! In any case, Not Our Kind is a compelling page turner, not a polemic, and à la Austen, Zeldis embeds whatever morals there might be in the story itself. But the message is clear, nevertheless. The path from othering to evil is a slippery slope.
Baron-Cohen, Simon (2012). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
Sapolsky, Robert (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Books.
Zeldis, Kitty (2018). Not Our Kind. New York: Harper.