The power of 'them'

Bill Mattocks

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Some people think that language itself affects how our brains work; for good or for ill. In other words, the actual way our words describe and encapsulate ideas makes it possible, or in some cases, impossible, to think about things outside the way the words themselves describe them.

Take the case of 'them', or more specifically, the group descriptor 'them'.

We have 'us' and we have 'them'. Both are groups. The former is a group to which we belong, the latter is a group to which we do not belong. I am a member of the group 'veteran'. I am not a member of the group 'knitters'. My wife is the opposite. However, both of us are members of the group 'our family', and the rest of the world isn't.

It is normal and natural to attempt to qualify and quantify the experiences we have, but we make different judgments about what we experience within our groups as opposed to what we experience outside of our groups. For example, in my group 'our family', I am quite well aware that one of us likes to eat broccoli and one of us does not. This does not seem strange to me; after all, I'm aware of the fact that my group consists of individuals with different preferences. It's perfectly natural to me to understand that members of my group are not all alike.

On the other hand, when I experience a different group, especially one which I have no knowledge of, I have no insight into the similarities or differences present within that group. I may make assumptions based on my lack of knowledge (ignorance).

For example, I may note that all members of the group I term 'asian' have a particular physical appearance. A certain color hair is predominant, physical stature, eye shape, and that sort of thing. That may also lead me to believe that I can make other generalizations. So if I meet a member of that group that belongs to a certain religion, and I have no other information available to me, I may believe that all members of that group are members of that religion. If the person behaves in a particular way, I may believe that this is common or universal within the members of this person's group.

Such generalizations can lead to stereotyping. Stereotyping can lead to bigotry, racism, and other forms of discrimination. Unfortunately, sometimes there are either (anecdotal or real) facts which support some types of stereotyping, and these can lead to a belief that any stereotype is therefore accurate. For example, if it is commonly seen that certain groups are better at particular physical sports, this reinforces a stereotype that all members of this group have this advantage; it is not difficult to see how people might also tend to believe that members of this group are also possessed of less positive stereotype behavior, such as criminality.

Worse, enforced political correctness (at least in the USA) is often seen as an enforced untruth to support the feelings of groups who are being oppressed or believe they are. Regardless of the underlying basis for trying to change stereotyping behavior and statements, many see it as an attempt to pretend that things are what they are not. A wink and a nudge are given to it, or lip service is paid to it, but underlying beliefs about stereotypes do not change.

Our language makes it all too easy to use the term 'them' to mean a monolithic group, one which is all the same, unlike 'us', which our own experience shows us has great variety within it.

Classifying groups as 'us' and 'them' and then assigning monolithic values to the group 'them' also allows us to simplify our worldview, to make difficult problems less complicated to solve, and permit us to not spend a lot of time pondering over issues which bother us but which we may not otherwise be able to put to rest in our minds. It's the easy answer, and the simple solutions it allows us to come up with gives us satisfaction that difficult problems can be resolved simply.

It is unfortunate that we have these terms. I know, for example, that people who shoot abortion doctors in the name of Christianity are not the same sort of Christians that I am, they may share some basic membership in my groups (white, male, US citizen, Christian, anti-abortion), but they are still not representative of all members of the groups we share membership in. My experience makes this clear to me, but that fact also means I can't come up with a simple solution to the problem of people shooting abortion doctors. I am not a member of the group of people who are from the Middle East, are Muslim, and feel that the US interferes too much in the nations of the Middle East or that Western values are destroying traditional Islamic values in families. When a Muslim man from the Middle East performs an act of terrorism, I have no basis for understanding that he is not representative of the groups he is a member of. Perhaps on an intellectual basis, but not based on perceptions and classification based on the word 'them'.

Please note that this does not forgive or defend bad behavior! In either case, the person is responsible for their own actions and should be held to account for them. In either case, the person may be part of a larger group that *does* perform such actions as a matter of course. The question is whether or not all the member of the groups the person belongs to believe those things. In the case of the former, I know this not to be true because *I* am a member of that group and *I* do not feel that way. In the case of the latter, I have no such assurance.

It's the difference between looking out and looking in. I know what it's like inside my house - I'm in here! I don't know what it's like inside my neighbor's house; I can only make guesses based on what I see from the outside.

Just a couple thoughts on a nice spring morning...
 

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Very good post, Bill. I'd like to make a comment about one small part of it.

On the other hand, when I experience a different group, especially one which I have no knowledge of, I have no insight into the similarities or differences present within that group. I may make assumptions based on my lack of knowledge (ignorance).

I think that, rather than making uninformed assumptions about outsiders, what is really happening is that we are NOT making assumptions about them. For example: if Alice, a member of Group A, encounters Bob, a member of Group B (of which she knows little), in a dark alley, she may suspect that Bob might rob her. She does this not because she is making an assumption about Group B, but because she makes an assumption about Group A - that they will not rob other members of the group. Absent any information about Group B, she can not make this assumption. Also, she would have had to make an assumption about Group B that she might not even be able to make about Group A - that they will not rob members of other groups.

In the example you gave about Christians and people shooting abortion doctors, we are steeped enough in American Christian culture to estimate fairly accurately the extent to which this tactic is condoned (not at all, outside of fringe groups). When dealing with people from outside countries and outside religions who can cite chapter and verse on where in their holy book their actions are justified, we have to take their word at face value until we can gain a better understanding of the society in which they were raised. And obviously, you can't just ask them "do you hate us and wish for our destruction?" Because even if they did, they would answer "no." You have to watch their actions. Then you can decide whether this is a trait of Group B, or a trait of Group B subset 2 which is a crazy-*** variation of the more common Group B subset 1.
 
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Bill Mattocks

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In the example you gave about Christians and people shooting abortion doctors, we are steeped enough in American Christian culture to estimate fairly accurately the extent to which this tactic is condoned (not at all, outside of fringe groups). When dealing with people from outside countries and outside religions who can cite chapter and verse on where in their holy book their actions are justified, we have to take their word at face value until we can gain a better understanding of the society in which they were raised. And obviously, you can't just ask them "do you hate us and wish for our destruction?" Because even if they did, they would answer "no." You have to watch their actions. Then you can decide whether this is a trait of Group B, or a trait of Group B subset 2 which is a crazy-*** variation of the more common Group B subset 1.

Valid point. I also consider that although I am a member of Group A, and thus have little knowledge of Group B's actual motives and beliefs (whether they are applicable to the entire group or just individuals within it), the same is true of people in Group B as they view the actions of individuals of Group A. My inability to see into their culture is the same as theirs is to see into mine.
 

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Words have always held power. Especially when it comes to dividing people.
Ubermensch, witch, heretic, traitor, terrorist, communist, socialist ...
As soon as polarizing words are thrown around, rational argument usually dies.

Words are also used as carrots and sticks.
Had the patriot act been named more appropriately like the facist powergrab act, it would pro bably not have gotten passed. But you can't be seen to vote agaist the 'patriot' act, can you? It would be very unpatriotic not to.

This is done at all levels, by all players.
Noone used middle names for presidents, until the campaign of Barrack Hussein Obama.
 

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It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.

Terry Pratchett, Jingo
 

granfire

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Usually when 'they' are not a defined group (like your mom's canasta club) 'they' range from broad over generalization to outright insult and it is usually a sign 'they' (as in those who use it) have run out of valid arguments.


and yes, I see what I did there. I talk to a lot of 'them' on the net.
 
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Bill Mattocks

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Words have always held power. Especially when it comes to dividing people.
Ubermensch, witch, heretic, traitor, terrorist, communist, socialist ...
As soon as polarizing words are thrown around, rational argument usually dies.

Words are also used as carrots and sticks.
Had the patriot act been named more appropriately like the facist powergrab act, it would pro bably not have gotten passed. But you can't be seen to vote agaist the 'patriot' act, can you? It would be very unpatriotic not to.

This is done at all levels, by all players.
Noone used middle names for presidents, until the campaign of Barrack Hussein Obama.

Yes, of course you are correct. And you can also see it with various political hot-button issues like abortion. You've got the 'pro-choice' group and the 'pro-life' group. No one wants to be 'anti'. At the same time, both groups characterize the other as exactly that. Anti-choice and anti-life (occasionally I have heard 'pro-murder' or 'pro-death', which simply substitutes 'life' with the opposite).

However, my intent when discussing this use of the term 'them' is even more basic. It's not done for nefarious reasons, or with the automatic intent to characterize someone as bad, wrong, or evil. It's simply a natural reaction to someone who does not belong to the groups we recognize as our own. They may be humans like us, but beyond that, they may not share the group characteristics we're used to. Not American, not white, not male, not Christian, not etc, etc, etc. And if you're not American, white, or male, the point is the same; we define 'us' as ourselves and those most like us, and 'them' as everyone who does not share membership in those groups.

If you enlarge the circle large enough, we all fit in; we're all humans (I think). But after that, things break down into smaller subsets quickly. We're not all the same sex, skin color, religion, ethnicity, political persuasion, citizens of the same country, and so on.

I was just pointing out that it is much easier to say "See how they are?" than "See how we are?" As you pointed out, 'we' don't do bad things. Only 'they' do bad things.

And as Walt Kelly said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
 
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Bill Mattocks

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Usually when 'they' are not a defined group (like your mom's canasta club) 'they' range from broad over generalization to outright insult and it is usually a sign 'they' (as in those who use it) have run out of valid arguments.


and yes, I see what I did there. I talk to a lot of 'them' on the net.

The problem is that we move from the general to the specific without much pause. There may be some basic truth to some stereotypes; we see it and recognize it. Then we use that as a roadway to pile on other assumptions that we believe must also be true. When told we mustn't think that way by well-meaning people, we think about the stereotypes we've seen that as far as we can tell do have a ring of truth to them, and presume that we're being lied to.

It is simply much easier to go with the concept that 'they' are a homogeneous group who all feel, act, and believe the same way; it makes it simpler for us to imagine solutions to the problems which confront us.

And for what it's worth, I do it too. I often get riled about 'gun-grabbers' as if all anti-gun people had the same agenda, the same hidden motives, and the same solution (ban all guns) in mind. It's easier than considering that many people who can be broadly categorized as being against the private ownership of guns have completely different ideas about what should be done about it.

Likewise, I've debated many anti-gun people who feel that as a pro-gun person, I am in favor of everyone owning a bazooka and I just can't wait to kill someone.

We're all 'they' to someone, and we all tend to create a monolithic 'they' to direct our fears towards.
 

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This is also why one of the first tactics deployed in any war, whether it's simply a war of words or a military operation, is to dehumanize the enemy.

Derogatory (from krauts & gooks to hajjis) & dehumanizing (enemy combatants, target, insurgent) terms, gross generalizations, and so on are used to further separate "them" from "us", which makes it much easier for many of "us" to do bad things to "them". And vice versa, of course.
 

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This is also why one of the first tactics deployed in any war, whether it's simply a war of words or a military operation, is to dehumanize the enemy.

Derogatory (from krauts & gooks to hajjis) & dehumanizing (enemy combatants, target, insurgent) terms, gross generalizations, and so on are used to further separate "them" from "us", which makes it much easier for many of "us" to do bad things to "them". And vice versa, of course.

Enemy combatant, target, and insurgent are not dehumanizing terms. They are descriptors for a specific subset of people. They are the complete opposite of "gross generalizations". What do you think they're going to do, call them by name when ordering airstrikes?
 

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Enemy combatant, target, and insurgent are not dehumanizing terms. They are descriptors for a specific subset of people. They are the complete opposite of "gross generalizations". What do you think they're going to do, call them by name when ordering airstrikes?

They are most certainly dehumanizing the target ins something that is 'it', not 'he'.
As long as the target is a faceless mass of 'them' you will have little problems to raise the gun an shoot them. It changes once the other side becomes a face with name and history, most often not unlike your own.
 

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They are most certainly dehumanizing the target ins something that is 'it', not 'he'.
As long as the target is a faceless mass of 'them' you will have little problems to raise the gun an shoot them. It changes once the other side becomes a face with name and history, most often not unlike your own.

Anonymity is not the same thing as dehumanization. Yes, they are "not us" but that doesn't make them inhuman. Nor is it necessary to think of someone as inhuman in order to kill them.
 

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Anonymity is not the same thing as dehumanization. Yes, they are "not us" but that doesn't make them inhuman. Nor is it necessary to think of someone as inhuman in order to kill them.

Well, when you make a human being a 'target' you dehumanize, you neutralize the humanity. Targets don't bleed or have kids in school...

From being not human to becoming something less is a small step.
 

CoryKS

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Well, when you make a human being a 'target' you dehumanize, you neutralize the humanity.

No, you don't, if the goal is to kill a human.

Targets don't bleed or have kids in school...

Yes, they do, if your target is a human.

When you are engaged in combat, you are killing humans. You don't need to dehumanize them to do that. People who can't imagine killing another person need theories like this so they can pretend that the military, often including people they love, are not knowingly killing humans. But that's what they are doing, and the military knows that. They are not the ones in denial.
 

granfire

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No, you don't, if the goal is to kill a human.

There are very few people on this world currently who have an easy time with going out killing humans. Those are usually your Bundys, etc...
Your average person does not aim a weapon at something to end that human life. That average person is aiming at something derived from the group of 'they': an attacker, the enemy, infidels



Yes, they do, if your target is a human.

When you are engaged in combat, you are killing humans. You don't need to dehumanize them to do that. People who can't imagine killing another person need theories like this so they can pretend that the military, often including people they love, are not knowingly killing humans. But that's what they are doing, and the military knows that. They are not the ones in denial.

You are purposely circumventing the semantics. But you still proof my point because no socially accepted person derives pleasure from offing human beings and depriving his/her offspring of their parents. And THAT is the purpose of this little exercise. And it is a tried and true method, that has been applied throughout the ages. Because when you strip the anomymity and lose the neutral context, when you get down to basics you will find there are 2 human beings standing across from each other with the same background story. All over sudden it is no longer 'us vs them' but 2 'me' standing face to face.

A lot of mental damage has been dealt to the human mind once the safety mechanism of anonymity was stripped from the operator of a powerful weapon.
 

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There are very few people on this world currently who have an easy time with going out killing humans. Those are usually your Bundys, etc...
Your average person does not aim a weapon at something to end that human life. That average person is aiming at something derived from the group of 'they': an attacker, the enemy, infidels





You are purposely circumventing the semantics. But you still proof my point because no socially accepted person derives pleasure from offing human beings and depriving his/her offspring of their parents. And THAT is the purpose of this little exercise. And it is a tried and true method, that has been applied throughout the ages. Because when you strip the anomymity and lose the neutral context, when you get down to basics you will find there are 2 human beings standing across from each other with the same background story. All over sudden it is no longer 'us vs them' but 2 'me' standing face to face.

A lot of mental damage has been dealt to the human mind once the safety mechanism of anonymity was stripped from the operator of a powerful weapon.

We weren't speaking of having an easy time of killing humans, and certainly not of 'deriving pleasure' from it. We're talking about people who have a difficult job to do - and do it because it needs to be done. Not because they're a bunch of sociopaths or because they were taught some jedi mind trick to make themselves believe they're popping balloons with a fairground bb gun. This whole "he is me" thing is just pop psychology, psychobabble ********.
 

granfire

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We weren't speaking of having an easy time of killing humans, and certainly not of 'deriving pleasure' from it. We're talking about people who have a difficult job to do - and do it because it needs to be done. Not because they're a bunch of sociopaths or because they were taught some jedi mind trick to make themselves believe they're popping balloons with a fairground bb gun. This whole "he is me" thing is just pop psychology, psychobabble ********.

It's not.
It's basic human nature.
It is the mechanism that makes sensible cultivated people in a highly civilized society turn on their neighbors and heave the most unspeakable horrors on them.

There it is, the powerful little word: them

You might not like it. But the evidence is there. It is easy to figt a clean war when you never make the connection between the shadowy figure on your screen and the 'Mr X was blown up in an explosion' or having to wade through blood and guts to secure the area.
 

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It's not.
It's basic human nature.
It is the mechanism that makes sensible cultivated people in a highly civilized society turn on their neighbors and heave the most unspeakable horrors on them.

There it is, the powerful little word: them

You might not like it. But the evidence is there. It is easy to figt a clean war when you never make the connection between the shadowy figure on your screen and the 'Mr X was blown up in an explosion' or having to wade through blood and guts to secure the area.

People do unspeakable things to others all the time without the need to categorize them as something other.

What's more shocking: a man from one country shooting a man from another country, or a woman who slices her pregnant neighbor's throat and cuts her baby out to keep for her own? What "them" did she cast the neighbor as in order to do this?

This 'clean war' you talk about is a brand new thing. Warfare has existed for thousands of years, and there is no evidence that it was any more difficult back when we had to 'wade through blood and guts' than it is now with the benefits of technology. If anything, we seem to have become more reluctant to commit to it.
 

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Terms like 'enemy combatant' are used to de-humanize, even though they have legit meanings. They are much more loaded than dry words like 'target'. The word 'target' is the end result of a process, resulting in specific actions against a person. One does not become a target until after the process has ended.

The word 'enemy combatant' otoh is a label which is applied at the beginning of the process, and which justifies everything in the process. That makes it much more dangerous and insidious than 'target.

If I label someone an enemy combatant, and you are a good patriot and take me on faith, then you don't care about what I do to him or how he is treated. He is a dirty enemy combatant after all. Enemy combatant is a word that is used to dehumanize someone so that average people don't object to his further treatment. If we looked on all of those people as humans, implying they should be treated as humans with rights, innocent until proven guilty... that would be inconvenient for the people on top who feel they should be able to treat them like cattle.
 

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This is done at all levels, by all players.
Noone used middle names for presidents, until the campaign of Barrack Hussein Obama.

Sorry, that's just not true.

John Quincy Adams

Hiram Ulysses Grant

Stephen Grover Cleveland

Thomas Woodrow Wilson

John Calvin Coolidge

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

William Jefferson Clinton

George Walker Bush

These are people who's full middle names were used. That is not to mention the routine use of initials in President's names, such as John F. Kennedy, L.B.J. (Lyndon Baines Johnson). Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Warren G. Harding.

As these were commonly used middle names and initials, even at the time these individuals were president, I doubt that you have an actual lack of knowledge that they were used. Which leads me to believe that you commentary here is agenda driven. I could be wrong, and you could sincerely not have known, but that would strike me as a whole other kind of odd.
 
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