By Stephen Wilson


Ilan Peleg: Charles A. Dana Professor of Government and Law

Markus Dubischar: Associate Professor of Classics, Assistant Department Head, Classical Civilization Program Chair

Turning on the news, we see the story played out over and over again: Two groups in direct opposition. Following recent events, consider the rhetoric around gun rights versus gun control, immigration reformers versus immigration advocates, climate-change believers versus climate- change deniers. More than a Hatfield and McCoy-type single family feud. More than citywide territory fights like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. More than region versus country, like Catalonia and Spain. Our modern times and conversations seem divided: blue states versus red states, Palestinians versus Jews, democracy versus totalitarianism. We are living in an age of dichotomies, and according to our experts humans have been living like this since the dawn of time. Ilan Peleg, Charles A. Dana Professor of Government and Law, and Markus Dubischar, associate professor of classics and chair of the classical civilization program, talk about the ancient and modern-day iterations of Us vs.Them thinking and how to rise above it.

Markus Dubischar: If we look at ancient and modern times, we find that there are many Us vs. Them dichotomies. It is a recurring political or social constellation. It is also a deeply ingrained thinking pattern that emerges at different times in different places. My class Greeks and Barbarians deals with one such instance: the Persian Wars of 490 B.C. and 480/79 B.C. Here Greeks and Persians are pitted against each other in almost archetypal clarity. From the Greek perspective, the Greeks are obviously “Us” and the Persians are “Them.” In this class, we study the Persian Wars from various angles: historical, political, cultural, and psychological.

But there are many other Us vs. Them constellations throughout classical antiquity. We find them within the Greek and Roman societies, for example, between free citizens and slaves, aristocrats and ordinary citizens, men and women, etc. We also find them, at times, in the relationships between Greeks and Romans, between Romans and the northern peoples of Gaul or Germany, and elsewhere. Therefore, the Persian Wars are only one example, a case study if you will, of a much wider phenomenon. What makes the Persian Wars particularly interesting is that they seem to prefigure later conflicts between “West” (however conceived) and “East” (however conceived), for instance, in the Crusades during the medieval period, in the Great Turkish War in the late 17th century, in conflicts between Europe’s colonial powers and the “Orientals,” then in the Cold War after World War II, and now in today’s post-9/11 world.

Ilan Peleg:  I am also deeply interested, and have been for a very long time, in the categorization of “Us vs. Them,” both in terms of its roots in antiquity as a historical model or archetype and in its modern ramifications and usage. As a professor of politics and particularly international politics, I deal mostly with the modern world, and the modern world is characterized by a very strong sense of nationalism, particularly over the last 200 or 300 years (since the French Revolution), but in many ways even before that. So within political science and international relations, my major interest is conflict, and within conflict I am particularly interested in ethnic conflict. This type of conflict, almost by definition, leads us to the question of the political identity of groups (nations, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, etc.). My most important book to date is a 2007 volume that I published at Cambridge University Press. It deals with the great variety of conflicts within different political systems, actually 14 of them. I am deeply interested in the way in which the dichotomy of Us vs. Them is created and sustained, the dysfunctionality and frequently the pathology of it, and ways of overcoming it, which is always invariably challenging.

So, for example, today in my First-Year Seminar (titled “Conflict and Cooperation in the World Community”), we dealt with the long conflict in Northern Ireland between the Protestant and Catholic communities that has been going on in some ways since the 11th century but more intensely since the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. So over the last 300 years this conflict has been going on, and the efforts to resolve it have been many and usually (but not always!) unsuccessful. I am very interested in exploring with my students the causes for this particular conflict and other conflicts: psychological, economic, political, perceptual (how people perceive themselves vis-à-vis the others).

In the European context, for example, you cannot understand the notion of “Europa” unless you have the Ottoman Empire out there as the non-European “Other.” This reality was wonderfully captured in an opera by Mozart called Die Entfüehrung aus dem Serail. Markus and I appreciate classical music and like to make allusions to it. So the Turks have been cast in the role of the “Other” for the Europeans for a long time. The theme of Us vs. Them has been repeated numerous times in human history, sometimes very dysfunctionally.

I want to talk about something that Markus has mentioned as well, the notion of the barbarian. Different civilizations have defined “uncivilized” people as barbarians: They don’t speak our language, they don’t dress like us, they don’t eat like us, and (worse than anything else) they worship in a different manner or may be praying to a different God. Therefore they are irredeemably different. We cannot possibly understand them. I think in today’s world we have this notion in too many places. The West against the East. Democracy versus non-democracy. So my research and my teaching deal very much with the politics of identity, how identity is developed and its consequences.

Markus Dubischar:  There are several topics that we could now explore. The first is, how does Us vs. Them thinking creep into our thought and behavior patterns? How does it start? But before we get there, I want to comment on what Ilan said about the tendency of civilizations to view especially their neighbors as “other” and as “barbarians.” The Greeks certainly considered their surrounding peoples as less civilized, as “barbarians,” and so did the Romans, who exempted, however, the Greeks from that category. The ancient Egyptians and ancient Chinese similarly thought about themselves as in possession of a superior culture and societal order and of their neighbors as less civilized and organized.

Where does this cultural egocentrism come from? It begins, as problematic thinking patterns sometimes do, with a true observation. Put simply, it runs as follows: We have our culture, our neighboring “Others” do not. So far so good. But a logical flaw creeps in when people then equate their own specific culture with culture in general. Then those who don’t share “our culture” suddenly appear to have no culture, to be uncultured, uncivilized. To make it more concrete: a Greek in the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. may rightly observe that Persians act differently from Greeks in many ways. Persians don’t live in independent city states, they don’t meet for regular athletic contests in Olympia (the original Olympic games, by the way), they don’t read Homer and Hesiod, the Persian temples and gods are different, and so forth. All this is, essentially, correct. But it would be wrong for our hypothetical Greek person now to conclude that, therefore, the Persians are uncivilized and “barbaric.” And they weren’t, as I hope to be able to explain later!

Even the word “barbarian” itself is an example of this self-righteous fallacy. In Greek, “barbarian” (barbaros) is an onomatopoeia. It imitates the sound of the people whose language the Greeks did not understand. To them they sounded like, “bar-bar-bar.” So the Greeks simply called them “barbarians,” that is “the bar-bar people,” or as we might say in English, the “blah-blah people.”

Ilan Peleg: Because of the human tendency to think categorically in terms of Us vs. Them, I see my function as an educator to alert my students to that innate reality, and the possibility for shifting the conversation—and the fundamental thinking—away from that notion. The antithesis to this kind of exclusiveness is to have a more pluralistic position, look at the world as beautifully diverse, and try to appreciate other cultures without debasing or giving up your own culture. I think that much of what I have been doing in my classes is teach students about other people’s cultures and develop an appreciation of cultural pluralism as a necessary foundation for human peace. Depending on how you define ethnic identity, in the world today there are roughly 5,000 different ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural groups. To prevent a constant war—and we have had at least 15,000 documented wars in history—it is very important not to marginalize those groups of people that are not your own. We should be able to cross over and understand other forms of language, music, food, dress, values, and so on and so forth in order to overcome the Us vs. Them thinking, a process that unfortunately is not necessarily in our nature as human beings.

There are times when Us vs. Them comes natural to people, a high priority at the time of conflict; a certain amount of “us-ness” might even be necessary in order to maintain the integrity of a society. Sometimes you have to protect your culture. Moreover, some values deserve to be protected and defended. Democracy in the Western world, for example, has been a very positive value. It expanded significantly human participation in the political process, and it has been a value worth protecting. The French Revolution has played a crucial role in the development of democracy, despite its well-known excesses. The Revolution tried to eliminate social hierarchies that constituted the Old Order. The democratization of the world over the last several hundred years have been very positive and somewhat successful, but not entirely successful. Not only do we have huge inequalities within Western societies, resulting in the type of instability we have seen in the West over the last few years, but our relationships with other cultures, societies, and countries have remained problematical. A lot more remains to be done in this regard. While we have to emphasize our achievements, especially Western democratization, and the values that we have, we must do much more in terms of equalizing human conditions all over the world.

Markus Dubischar:  Ilan, you are making two important points. Us vs. Them thinking is part of our human nature, and even though it sometimes leads to serious problems, it is not bad in itself. It is a product of evolution that has helped us survive individually and collectively. First, cognitive psychology tells us that our brain constantly simplifies reality. Otherwise we could not navigate the world. Us vs. Them thinking, stereotype formation, and the like are part of this filtering and simplifying of reality. Second, social psychology tells us that many of our deeply ingrained mental and behavioral programs reflect primal, say, hunter-and-gatherer realities. We are programmed to form and to seek communities. We want to belong to a tribe, and we want our tribe to survive. Therefore, identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t is important to us, and we often view non-group members with at least initial suspicion. Third, social psychology also makes clear that it is important and healthy for groups to have strong shared beliefs. These group beliefs help constitute a group’s collective identity and coordinate group behavior. It has been shown that in groups individuals over time tend to assimilate their views to the prevailing group beliefs.

It is easy to see, I think, how these three tendencies can create pronounced Us vs. Them thinking. This will not change as long as human nature does not fundamentally change (which I don’t see happening anytime soon). Does this mean that we should therefore uncritically indulge in simplified stereotypes, hostile Us vs. Them thinking, and group think? Of course not! But we have to understand that nature has programmed these tendencies into us. Acknowledging this fact should be the first step in any realistic attempt to tackle the sometimes extremely troubling consequences of the behavioral and cognitive programming that I just described.

Ilan Peleg: Very often values that are emerged, developed, adopted and eventually enshrined by societies are necessary for maintaining the fundamental stability of that society.  These values form the core of the societal identity, often distinguishing it from other societies. Every society known to us has a set of fundamental values and possibly even specific procedures that people tend to agree on, or at least are content with not challenging them. Existing values, rules, and procedures are often referred to by social scientists as “institutions.” In modern complex societies you have political institutions (like the three branches of government in the United States), economic institutions, social institutions (like marriage), and so forth. In many ways, every society you can think of has a set of values it maintains. Number two, in regards to the brain, I think our powerful human brain is quite a unique instrument in the animal kingdom. Our brain is capable and might even be inclined to distinguish between that which is acceptable and that which is not, the familiar and the foreign. There is a strong capability that is necessary for human progress, for computers and iPhones and everything else that we are doing, but some of what we have as human beings is a very strong inclination to make distinctions, distinguishing people who look like us and people who look different, people who worship the same God and other those who worship other Gods. This could lead people to very negative results, like discrimination of people who behave “unnaturally,” while violating their sense of right and wrong, because they don’t pray to this God but instead pray to another God.  This is the inherent danger of developing an Us vs. Them mentality. It often results in dehumanizing others …

Markus Dubischar: The Greeks and their eastern neighbors lived together more or less harmoniously for a long time. There was widespread commerce and cultural exchange. One period in Greece’s earlier history, roughly the seventh century B.C., is in fact called the “Orientalizing period” because during this time the Greeks eagerly absorbed so many cultural influences coming from their east, whose civilizations were, at the time, much older, politically more powerful, and culturally more developed than the Greek city-states were. But even then, the Greeks and the Persians were culturally and politically different entities, each with its own language, customs, social organization, and so forth. These differences, however, did not automatically trigger antagonistic Us vs. Them dynamics. So the question is, when is it that differences, which always exist wherever humans interact, lead to bipolar Us vs. Them tensions and conflicts? In my class Greeks and Barbarians, we trace this development.

Ilan Peleg: So if you look for an example in Europe where a conflict evolved, a conflict over territorial or economic possessions, Europe had become a very crowded place where people competed for those kinds of possessions. So notice, for example, the Judeo-Christian notion of the Garden of Eden. One of the characteristics of the Garden of Eden is a place of unlimited plenty; there is no competition for resource, everybody has everything. This is probably a notion of the ancient world, which is probably accurate in actual history of a time in which you did not have a lot of people. You had a very small level of production within the agriculture sector and had this notion of plenty. But when you have too many people due to technological development and when people start competing for territories, “this is mine … this is not yours, you may not go through my territory unless you pay me,” a conflict over scarce resources is on the rise, accompanied by the emergence of an Us vs. Them prism.  I think of this human conflict as what I like to call “otherization,” looking at other human beings and making distinctions in which your society is privileged and other societies are marginalized or held in low regards. This is when the reality of life itself becomes clearer, human reality, goods and services, money, plenty or depravity, these ideas come into being, and it might create a lot of inter-societal conflict. There is always the danger that the Us vs. Them paradigm might take over.

This is very relevant for today’s world.  In the past, civilizations had limited contact; you had the Mediterranean civilization, the Romans, Greeks, and the Eastern Mediterranean, and then you had China and the Incas in the Americas. The intensity of the interaction between the various civilizations was relatively low, and sometimes nonexistent. The good thing about it: no interaction … no reason for conflict and otherization.  Today, however, you have a great amount of contact between human societies all over the modern world. Contact may evolve into wonderful cross-fertilization, but it might also lead to conflict. And I think that in the modern world we see a lot of conflict arising out of close and intensive contact and out of interaction between people. One last thought that I have, when you were talking about interaction with a different societies, civilizations, and belief systems … could you possibly have a fusion between them in which something good comes out of it or does it necessarily lead to one society trying to dominate the other? I’m talking now about the Greek Persian wars. In other words, is it going to be a time where we dominate others or are human beings capable of evolving together through cooperation?

Markus Dubischar: I would also confirm that as long as different groups do not compete—say, for territory, for power, for cultural or economic dominance, etc.—we usually don’t get the Us vs. Them antagonism. Differences are still noted, but they do not become markers of “otherness.” As I said, the Greeks obviously had long been aware of their eastern neighbors’ different languages and customs. But these and other differences only turned into markers of threatening “otherness” when Persia became a threat and tried to conquer Greece. (The fact that earlier Athenian aggression had in part provoked the Persian offensive is sometimes conveniently downplayed in this context.)

Regarding your question of blending cultures together, a case in point in classical antiquity for this phenomenon is the development and the spread of early Christianity in the Roman empire, many centuries after the Persian Wars. The transition from Greco-Roman polytheism to Christianity is not simply the result of a clash between two incompatible belief systems, of which one in the end defeated the other. On the contrary, Christianity gained increasing traction among the Roman Empire’s educated elite only after it had incorporated and blended with important elements of the then widespread neo-Platonic philosophy. The idea of an abstract divine highest being was reinterpreted as the Christian God; imagined divine “messengers”— the Greek word for which is angeloi—became the Christian “angels”; other fundamental Platonic ideas were also easy to incorporate into the emerging Christian doctrine, for example, that the soul is immortal or that humans should aim for moral virtue, not worldly goods. So there you have your blend. Unfortunately, even this “blending” was not always a smooth and peaceful process. There was conflict, oppression, and bloodshed along the way too.

Ilan Peleg: I would emphasize here that several of the Western religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—put a lot of emphasis on erasing the Us vs. Them paradigm. So, for example, the notion that man is created in the image of God is basically saying that every human being, regardless of specific beliefs or values he/she might have, is equal to all other human beings. This is, at least in today’s Judeo-Christian world, a very dominant notion that could lead to political reconciliation despite cultural differences. There are in our world cultural, linguistic, racial, and many other differences between societies. But this notion that there is a God and man is made in the image of God, declares that human beings are equal. I think it is an effort, maybe not a conscious one, to overcome the Us vs. Them mentality.  The natural inclination of human beings is really to emphasize their uniqueness against others, a proclivity that often leads to conflict. Conflict is about striving to maintain your identity, your territory, your lifestyle against somebody else who may be encroaching, or be suspected of doing it, or considered to be a threat. I think that religious traditions at their best might represent an effort to overcome this thinking, but they are not always applied in this way.

Stephen: When does something that could be smaller or regional Us vs. Them turn into larger, systematic Us vs. Them? How does that thinking transcend a smaller group, or two groups that live in the same city?

Ilan Peleg: We had a wonderful class discussion today about the long-term Irish conflict and how it has evolved, which is sort of a little bit of an eye opening because you have two Christian communities, Catholic and Protestant, who have been fighting with each other tooth and nail for the last three to four hundred years with thousands of people killed. It is very difficult to say exactly when it has started, but certainly one of the contributing factors was the massive settlements of Protestants in Ireland. Ireland was Catholic, and these people came with the support of the Protestant English state. The settlements were either from the Anglican Church of England or Scottish Presbyterians. But they were, by definition, different from the Irish who were Catholic. They were also given a lot of economic benefits. So you had social, economic, and religious differences, reinforcing each other. Out of this evolved the long ongoing conflict between Protestant England and Catholic Ireland, establishing a very strong sense of Us vs. Them. For example, there is a wonderful play that has been written about it, how the English very systematically went to Ireland and changed the name of every river, every town from its Irish name to English names, trying, in effect, to erase the Irish identity that was there (but, through this process, strengthen it!).

Ilan Peleg: When people are in conflict with others, they tend to emphasize their differences. They often talk about each other as if they are from different planets. In both Belfast and Jerusalem, you can see and feel the differences between different neighborhoods. It’s sort of sad … People might look alike, but for deep psychological reasons they often view each other as “you might as well be from Mars … I am from Venus. We are different people, we have nothing in common.”

Ilan Peleg: The example of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is by now a classic in terms of inter-group hostility. I think the point is brought out very clearly. Once someone belonging to a group crosses over—the guy and the woman fall in love with each other—tragedy is inevitable. This is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. That’s a no-no because you are breaking the group coherence, challenging the taboo of Us vs. Them for which you will not be forgiven.

Ilan Peleg: Violent conflict in which people are killing each other is really the ultimate tragedy because it is likely to escalate into stronger, even permanent Us vs. Them situations. But alternatively, people who are injured by such an inter-group situation might recognize it for what it is and work toward long-term reconciliation. If we can learn to live together, recognize each other, respect each other, this could lead to better lives for everyone. At the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, you have groups of Palestinian Arab parents and Israeli Jewish parents who actually lost their sons and daughters in the conflict and who now get together in groups that meet to talk about their mutual suffering.  And you can look back at the relationship between United States and Germany after World War II or at the relationship between Americans and Vietnamese now. People do have the capacity to erase the Us vs. Them mentality, although it is a gradual, incremental process.

Markus Dubischar: In my class about Greeks and Barbarians we also address this important question. How can we move beyond destructive and harmful stereotypes and Us vs. Them thought patterns? As I said earlier, we cannot get these tendencies out of our human cognitive and behavioral system. So the question is, how do we deal with it maturely? How can we break down Us vs. Them barriers and soften up rigid bipolar worldviews when they are not helpful? The encouraging thing is that it can be done! So there is hope. The solution has an intellectual and an emotional component. Intellectually, the key is increased understanding. Try to learn and know as much as you can about the “Others.” Let knowledge replace simplistic stereotypes. It may turn out that others are less “Other” than you thought. The emotional component of de-othering the “Other” lies in empathy. Resist tendencies to dehumanize the “Others.” We’re all human. We all have the same basic needs and desires. No difference between humans will ever change these basic commonalities that unite us all.

This is why my class Greeks and Barbarians contains a long unit called “Who Are the Others?” Here we trace the 3,000-yearlong impressive political and cultural history of the ancient Near Eastern civilizations, beginning with the city of Uruk, and ending with the Persian Empire. Here my students experience what it feels like to have possible false stereotypes replaced by real knowledge and understanding. For the emotional side, we analyze Aeschylus’ tragedy The Persians. Here Aeschylus shows his audience, and us modern readers, how the Persians at home react to the defeat of their great army and their losses. Suddenly the Persians no longer seem so “Other.” Aeschylus encourages empathy with the former enemy—even though he, too, is of course glad that the Greeks won and not the Persians. But we’re all human. This Aeschylean tragedy is a great lesson in empathy.

Ilan Peleg: In conclusion, I see our entire effort in teaching courses in foreign languages, government and law, international affairs, history, anthropology/sociology, and other subjects as putting across the idea that understanding the other side—different cultures—is absolutely crucial for human survival, prosperity, and well-being. The world is characterized by a lot more contact than in any other period in history; it is indeed a small village. Everybody knows instantly what happens in Australia, China, or Pakistan. And so the challenge of understanding people is even more important than ever before because we know immediately what’s happening, and we are directly impacted by it.  Secondly, the diversity of people and groups is so enormous. You had so many wars in Europe—people didn’t understand each other or had fundamentally different values and interests. Now we are dealing with countries with which we differ tremendously. Therefore, overcoming the Us vs. Them mentality has become so much more challenging and so much more important than ever before. The function of education at Lafayette as I see it, particularly in the social science and humanities, is really to bring our students to a level of sophistication and understanding of others in the world that we all share with other people, groups, and civilizations.