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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    May 2008

Overcoming "Us vs. Them"

Five steps to start giving peace a chance in your own life.

By Joanie Connors



Our world seems to be filled with ugly conflicts — fighting between politicians, scandals within families, and endless killing. Such conflicts' destructive consequences affect us all, whether by broken families, dysfunctional institutions, fear of violence or simply public rudeness. And it appears to be getting worse: People seem more likely to resort to screaming at each other, insulting, pushing, suing, threatening, hitting and shooting each other in homes, schools, workplaces, in the streets and internationally. Pushing others around seems to have taken the place of helping your neighbor.

How is it that so many areas of our public and private lives have become so characterized by hostility? How did we come to be a society where it is common for people to abuse and attack each other?



Is conflict the problem? Conflict is really not a bad thing in itself. We don't think alike and we don't all have the same needs, so we must disagree with each other and air our feelings to negotiate life together. But disagreement can be done respectfully, keeping in mind that we matter to each other despite our different viewpoints. Conflict need not mean harming or demeaning those we disagree with.

We would never change our opinions, habits or life directions if we were not able to disagree with each other. We inevitably make mistakes and misbehave, so we need each other to tell us the truth when we do. Even if we were behaving faultlessly, we would still need to be pushed to try different things and see other sides. Respectful conflict makes us confront our limits and become stronger.

Problems come when conflict is motivated to cause harm or to destroy, or to negate someone's presence. Such fighting turns abusive, blind to the damage it causes and ultimately self-destructive because of the ill will and enemies left behind



Blaming: Somehow in this culture we have learned to blame others when our needs aren't met, or even they are but we still want more, like spoiled children. We focus our energy on judging and blaming the other guy instead of developing skills for working out our differences. We rationalize that this person (or group) is unworthy of compassion or consideration.

We learned about abuse issues (physical, sexual, emotional, social) in our society some 25 years ago, but too many of us got lost in the victim role. Rather than move on after learning this new information, we have become a society of blamers, accusing each other of abuse while seldom examining our own behavior. Note the immense popularity of hate radio, exploitive talk shows and humiliating reality shows playing to this theme.



Divisions: Another problem leading to conflict is the overabundance of divisions in our society. We label ourselves by our political groups, religion, race or ethnicity, sexual identity, age and roles (boss, teacher, student. . .). Then, once we decide what groups we belong to, we spend as much time with them as possible and avoid members of other groups (the "out groups") so not to be troubled by their contrary views and ways.

Many of us automatically turn our backs against anyone who comes from a group we don't belong to or understand. The most stubborn group divisions to overcome seem to be based on ancient prejudices of gender, race and age. We find it easy to mistrust and discount others with these "out group" labels, saying in effect, "If you are one of them, you must be wrong." When we decide that some groups are "us" and others are "them," we put a wall between us that makes listening or understanding impossible.

"Us against them" becomes "me against you" when applied to the people we love or work with. We are driven to "defeat" them or to "win." But does anyone win in the long run when others are made to suffer harm, humiliation or loss? Think of times that you've "won" against someone in the past — are you really better off because of it now?



Creating enemies: Such conflicts can lead us to view "them" as enemies, a process that starts with labels that categorize people into what Aaron Beck calls "hostile frames" in his book Prisoners of Hate. Hostile frames are demeaning labels that represent others as only having negative traits and blot out their positive characteristics. That allows us to rationalize cheating, hating, attacking and even killing them because they no longer merit our compassion.

Whether the label is a demeaning way of seeing your ex-spouse or a racist profanity against a group, the process is similar: We see them as less than a human being. Their wants and needs seem threatening. We no longer need to be concerned about hurting them or keeping them from getting their needs met. We can justify aggression — they're the enemy.

One of the saddest things is war within a family, where parent and child, brother and sister, or spouses become enemies. Normal disagreements become power struggles over who gets their way, which become blind rages and determination to obstruct each other's happiness. Few families caught in this destructive cycle see the damage it causes.

The institution of divorce often helps to shape family wars. In divorce, the usual legal response is to push the formerly loving partners to see each other as enemies by making them create lists of wrongdoings and character defects in order to "win" custody or a bigger share of marital property. Families are torn apart by having to choose sides, scarring both parents and children.



Using and abusing: Somehow, meeting our needs has become so important that using people has become more acceptable. It is now commonplace for people to nag, insult, ogle, ignore and take advantage of others, whether strangers, coworkers or a spouse.

When denying others' rights and feelings in order to use them becomes habitual, abuse takes over. Sometimes it's a mutual-abuse cycle where both blame and deny each other's rights and feelings. Often, though, abuse is inflicted on vulnerable people who do not have the physical, mental or legal resources to protect themselves.



Who is my enemy? In a world of self-absorption and competition, everyone is your "enemy" because everyone wants their fair share. Do we really want to attack each other for wanting the same things that we want? A disagreement takes five minutes, maybe an hour, while enemies and regrets can last a lifetime.

Do we need to have enemies? Couldn't we just let people disagree? Can we get over our egotistical selves?

"No one seems to care anymore," a student said to me recently. We should care because need each other. We are social beings and need the support of others to be healthy. We cannot manage our complex physical, emotional and social needs without depending on others in thousands of ways.

Here are five steps to start breaking the cycle of conflict and blame, division and enemies:

 

1. Become aware of other people. Being unaware of how you treat people is like being socially blind. If you are not consciously striving to see how you treat people, you are probably thinking of only yourself. This keeps you ignorant, stagnant and likely to repeat your mistakes.

Developing awareness of others is easy — it simply requires listening. First you hold back the need to do all the talking, then you listen to their words, actions and nonverbal signals to learn where the other person is coming from. If you want to study the subtleties of listening further, two good models are Deep Listening (Thich Nhat Hanh) and Compassionate Listening (Gene Knudsen Hoffman, www.coopcomm.org)



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