Conflicts
5:18 am
Thu May 8, 2014

Commentary: Can We Ever Get Beyond Us Vs. Them?

Our world is never free of conflict. There are many “we” versus “they” imbroglios in which an exalted group lets pride lead to disdain, second-class status, or even violence against those outside the group. The lines of demarcation include race, ethnicity, religion or nationhood.

For example, Iraq is divided into Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. The Shiite-Sunni divide is present throughout the Arab world and stems from a religious controversy centuries ago. As Iraq approaches an election, bombs are directed at one of the groups or at their places of worship. There is no trust and seemingly no accommodation.

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In the Central African Republic and in Mali, Christians are attacking Muslims and driving them from their homes. The death toll mounts. Just two decades ago, members of the Tutsi tribe turned on the Hutus, wreaking death and destruction on an almost unparalleled scale.

Russia has taken two sections of Georgia and now the Crimean region of the Ukraine because ethnic Russians live there; and Russians should rule Russians.  It goes without saying that Russian President Putin would like to recapture the territories of the old Soviet Union. The “we” versus “they” philosophy provides context that has been welcomed by ethnic Russians within the country’s borders and without.

In our country, rancher Cliven Bundy and Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling illustrate the stereotypes many have of people who are not the same as them. Whether it is ethnicity or religion or race, a group will consider itself special and correct. Many are too afraid of difference. They may fear economic competition or residential incursion. They have the right way or the right birthright.

As Lt. Cable agonized in “South Pacific,”

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear.
. . .
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late.
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.

“Vive la difference” is not a great rallying cry anywhere in this world. Perhaps some introspection is needed. We can all find evidence of stereotype and “we” vs “then” splits in our homes, schools, communities.

The balkanization of St. Louis is enjoyed by those who dwell in homogeneous communities and eschew the diversity of the central city.  Greater togetherness might aid economic development but it could touch existing boundaries. Some say “Kirkwood is doing just fine” or Ballwin is “in good shape.” The “we” here are tied to a small but comfortable jurisdiction. At the same time, some in the city or tiny municipalities do not want their power diluted or their office-holding diminished.

Maybe someday we will wake up and realize that we all want similar things for ourselves and our children and that working across the lines of demarcation could make our goals more obtainable. Yet, since the Tower of Babel, linguistic, ethnic, tribal, religious differentiations have fueled civil strife and warfare. Will it ever change? 

Lana Stein is a retired professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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