08: US/THEM SYNDROME
Welcome to the 8th post in our Journey in Dialog. As an addition to Post 07, we will highlight a restraining force to dialog that is very much with us. It’s the Us/Them Syndrome. In practice, this syndrome, which is often based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, and socioeconomic status, results in building barriers that restrain transformational dialog.
Our brains are wired to lead us to defend our particular turfs. Thereby, in the interest of self-protection, we have a tendency to dehumanize those people who are not “us.” For example, in order to gain support for his agenda to exterminate Jews, Hitler made use of this tendency to dehumanize others. His dehumanizing rhetoric succeeded in convincing many Germans that all Jews were bad for Germany.
It is really tough to dialog across those Us/Them barriers. After all, we are better educated; we are more moral; our food is tastier; our music is more moving; our language is more logical and poetic. “Them” need to watch their step, try harder to measure up, and support our politics, our religion, and the products we use.
Stanford professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery, Robert Sapolsky, tells us that, “The brain’s fault lines dividing Us from Them are also shown with the hormone, oxytocin.” Oxytocin prompts behaviors to be more trusting, cooperative, and generous towards our people. But, with those other folks, oxytocin has the opposite effect.
In our world today, we face Us/Them issues of great magnitude. Even beyond Democrats and Republicans, there are the haves and have-nots, the Shiites and Sunnis, acceptable Kurds and unacceptable Kurds, even those with common or different ancestors, not to mention Muslims, Christians, Jews, North Koreans, and South Koreans.
An example of the genocide that can result from Us/Them issues happened in the former Yugoslavia where it is reported that more than 8,000 men, women, and children were massacred by their fellow citizens. Many of those 8,000 had been neighbors. Yet intense propaganda convinced community members to take genocidal actions that demonstrated regressive humanity at its worst.
How do we dialog across Us/Them lines when in order to create a better world, we must do exactly that? What follows is an example of crossing those lines.
During World War II, British commandos kidnapped a German general in Crete. That event was followed by a dangerous 18-day march to the coast to rendezvous with a British ship. One day along that march, the party saw the snows of Crete’s highest peak.
The German general mumbled to himself the first line (in Latin) of an ode by Horace, the Roman lyric poet and satirist who wrote about love, friendship, and philosophy. The ode, quoted by the German general, was about a snowcapped mountain. Upon hearing that ode, a British commander continued the recitation. The two men realized that they had “drunk at the same fountains.” As a result, the British commander had the German general’s wounds treated and personally ensured his safety. The two stayed in touch after the war and were reunited decades later on Greek television.
Dialog calls us to move beyond stereotypes and to find perspective on what we will gain together. What do you think it will take for more of us to overcome our Us/Them syndrome barriers?
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