We are all part of this growing, dangerous problem.
Posted December 4, 2018
A Gallup poll just after the last presidential election found 77 percent of Americans seeing the country as “greatly divided when it comes to the most important values.” A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll nine months into this presidency found seven in ten Americans believing that the nation’s political divisions were as bad as during the Vietnam War (Gershon, 2017).
Then there were the brutal and bruising midterm elections, when we could not even agree on the facts. While online conspiracy theorists, Fox News, and the president himself are seen to be sowing division, there are also groups hard at work to reach across the divide (Rauch, 2017; Young, 2018).
Them vs. Us seems to be happening in every group: at work, at home, in government, and between nations. But Them vs. Us is not inevitable, nor is it irreversible. It is a major opportunity.
Three Turning Points
Them vs. Us occurs when people care passionately about outcomes, about something they wish to contribute.
Say we would like to express a disagreement at work or at home, something we feel strongly about, hoping to reach a better outcome. When we stop short because we fear consequence, our communication feels unwelcome, or we get no closure even after making our views known, that passion to contribute doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it changes into frustration, looking for an outlet.
The more strongly we believe our contribution could have been helpful, or that we were treated unfairly, the more frustrated we’re likely to feel. What we do with that frustration is the first turning point in Them vs. Us.
We might look for a sympathetic person, a receptive ear, someone who can relate. The nature of this conversation is the first turning point in Them vs. Us.
If our intention in communicating is to clarify our views, to refine efforts toward a solution or if our listener can help us make solutions our goal, then that conversation is likely to be helpful.
But our listener is human. If our communication is dominated by complaint and grievance rather than seeking a solution, listeners are likely to be reminded of their own thwarted passions, the things they can’t get closure with. They are then invited to begin complaining to others about their version of your complaint.
There can be great comfort in shared grievance, where we can feel heard and agreed with, creating the seeds of a culture where it’s cool to be aggrieved, even resentful.
The Third Turning Point: The Listener
An alert listener, a true friend, could listen and understand, but rather than join in the commiseration, say something like: “Okay, I see that. How could I help you solve this”? Or: “What could be your plan to move toward a solution?” Or otherwise, catalyze a positive change toward a solution and away from grievance as an endpoint.
But if the conversation remains centered on blame and commiseration, that bond is likely to extend to others who can “relate”, who agree, and people become even more certain that they are right. And the contagion continues.
In this growing group, then, it’s becoming cool to be aggrieved. But when we stop at blame we obviate its opposite, responsibility.
Soon this group—call it “Us”—begins to form opinions about those “others”, the “thwarters”. Labels become solidified, like “uncaring”, “elite”, “Republican or Democrat,” even the other department at work that should be with us rather than against us.
“Us” is becoming a subculture needing someone to blame to maintain cohesion. This will shape future behavior, and battle lines solidify.
The tribal comfort of togetherness, rightness and being valued depends on the complaint. And should that initial problem—our intended gift –somehow get resolved, our cohesion becomes threatened: our everyday grievance solved, we have much less to talk about, to feel together, to commiserate.
We’ve become dependent on an adversary for our own cohesion.
Social media, television and talk radio, where we can remain in cozy agreement against the “Other,” can add power and dangerous acceleration to the contagion of Them vs. Us. But they do not create the problem or the contagion. We do. They’re just feeding off of it as we allow it. Maybe they could help.
Solutions and Leadership
Let us remember that we can create Them vs. Us without any help at all from national leadership. Therefore solutions must begin with us and be guided, encouraged and ratified by leadership.
Let’s remember also that we—you and I—are both “Them” and “Us”. We can do anything together.
To whom on the “other side” could you reach out and try to understand, rather than agree or disagree? When? Any apologies in order? Can you arrange to continue talking periodically? Even the smallest step is important.
Leadership is needed to ratify and codify solutions. We the people are responsible to determine if current national leadership 1) is capable of and 2) is interested in helping to resolve our nationwide Them vs. Us. Are they? Or, not?
Has the president encouraged a win-lose culture rather than a win-win effort? Has he encouraged blame? (Blake, 2017). Has he promoted negative labels, such as “fake news,” “enemy of the people,” or immigrants who “infest our country”? (Klein and Liptak, 2018). Has he encouraged Them vs. Us, even to the point of inspiring hatred and violence? (Essig, 2018). Does he spread lies, demonizing and dehumanizing others? (Parker, 2018).
Are you okay with today’s Them vs. Us? Or, could you find more lasting and genuine comfort with leadership that is acting to encourage, guide, and ratify the efforts we must make to unite under our Constitution. If the latter, then we need empathy, yes, but as important we need resolve to cause the needed changes in leadership now.
It’s still our choice, but not indefinitely.
Co-authored with Arthur R. Ciancutti, M.D.
Arthur (Arky) R. Ciancutti, M.D., is a physician, author, speaker, and facilitator, teaching teamwork and change for the Learning Center (learningcenter.net) since 1974.
Blake, A. (2017). Trump’s hypocritical quote on taking blame just about says it all. Washington Post. Retrievable at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/10/16/trumps-quote-…
Essig, T. (2018). How Trump’s psychology of hate unleashed the MAGA Bomber. Forbes. Retrievable at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/toddessig/2018/10/26/how-trumps-psychology…
Gershon, L. (2017). Just how divided are Americans since Trump’s election? History. Retrievable at: https://www.history.com/news/just-how-divided-are-americans-since-trump…
Klein, B., and Liptak, K. (2018). Trump ramps up rhetoric: Dems want ‘illegal immigrants’ to ‘infest our country.’ CNN. Retrievable at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/19/politics/trump-illegal-immigrants-infest…
Parker, K. (2018). Trump’s dangerous dehumanization of the ‘other’. Washington Post. Retrievable at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-dangerous-dehumanization…
Rauch, J. (2017). Better Angels: Slowly bridging our partisan divide. Real Clear Politics. Retrievable at: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2017/12/22/better_angels_slo…
Young, R. (2018). Conservatives in Kentucky, liberals in Massachusetts try to bridge political divide. WBUR. Retrievable at: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/11/28/conservatives-kentucky-libera…