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Four Tips For Enlightened Us-Versus-Them Thinking

“Is our group too white?”

That question was posed this summer by members of a running club I know here in Evanston, Ill., a suburb just outside Chicago, where I live. Ours is an economically and racially diverse community, so perhaps that query isn’t surprising, especially given events of the last few months.

But their questioning reflects a broader trend I discussed in my first installment on this topic: our society is coping with the fact that “us-versus-them” thinking is both essential and dangerously divisive for human culture – and always has been. But these days, as we prepare to resolve the 2020 US presidential election, the divisive downsides of us-versus-them thinking are weighing on many of us.

The boundaries we create between those we feel similar to (us) and others less similar (them) can promote both high performance and hatred, hope and horror – often at the same time. This double-edged mentality is critical to human progress and human organizing at all levels – from small groups to broader communities, companies and countries.

So how do we practice us-versus-them thinking in a good way — in a manner that builds up, rather than tears down, the fabric of our democracy?

Below I offer four guideposts for successful inclusion and exclusion, the two practices that underlie us-versus-them thinking.

1)    Belonging matters, and effective belonging requires exclusion – in some form. And that’s ok. Enjoying time with those who look, talk, and think like you is normal and healthy. Indeed, a sense of belonging—being “one of us”—is critical to human well-being. Research associates loneliness with mental and physical decline. So, as isolation grows in the US, we need to understand and accommodate the human need to be part of groups that make us feel affirmed and connected with like others.

It’s important to bear in mind the challenges that members of many different groups now face in claiming and affirming their  identities. We know that it is especially important in large institutions to allow members of identity groups that are not dominant to experience belonging. This is why some universities, like Northwestern University where I teach, are bringing back race/gender-themed houses.

At the same time, I know many young white men who struggle with feelings of guilt over the privilege others perceive them to have. Yet, they didn’t create the social structures that privileged them and are now being torn down. They’re feeling alienated and uncomfortable embracing who they were born to be. A similar situation holds true with the people I work with in the Catholic Church. The clergy and staff who are rebuilding the Church are not the ones who created the past, yet they often encounter surprising levels of hostility when people find out they work there. They feel that it is often not safe to publicly embrace their faith.

Bottom line: Human dignity means embracing our unique identity with pride rather than apology. We each need to know and claim who we are and who we aren’t.

2)    Belonging goes awry when circles of sameness become disparagement engines aimed at members of other groups. Most of us have had the experience of denigrating an outside group while within our own—whether it’s women complaining about “mansplaining” or men decrying the “honey-do list.” Labeling the “other” may bring a group together but it also pulls broader society apart. We’re finally understanding more fully that jokes at others’ expense are exactly what we need to stop. That’s why the social norms depicted in iconic 1980’s movies don’t hold up under modern scrutiny, and why comedian Bill Burr’s recent Saturday Night Live monologue was panned by many. Most would agree we can’t allow hate speech, but its younger cousin “I-was-just-joking” speech is also problematic. We can — and should — do better.

Bottom line: Disparagement of others in service of group bonding is not okay.

3)    Belonging goes awry when tight-knit groups become a vehicle for transferring economic and political power. The line between business and politics and socializing has always been blurred, but we have to recognize the deep bias bred by social similarity and institutionalized barriers, including more subtle ones. Informal groups likely aren’t going anywhere (and most shouldn’t, as pointed out above), but they can’t continue to be tied so closely to awarding of contracts, sales relationships, hiring, professional development and promotion, and even admission to elite schools. Here, we need to cleave the strong relationship between identity and opportunity wherever possible, to create a more level playing field for all.

Bottom line: It’s probably time to move away from the golf course, clubhouse, and other elite social interactions as primary contexts for doing business.

4)    Belonging works best when shared values and shared purpose provide the glue that binds. As we build more demographically diverse groups at work and within our local communities, these groups will need ways to foster the social cohesion that racial and ethnic sameness used to give us. Healthy groups have boundaries. Social cohesion requires a binding agent. How do we create a sense of unity and sameness amid higher levels of diversity, levels higher than human cultures have ever encountered before in history?

Longstanding social psychological and sociological research affirms that the answer is shared purpose and shared values, whether at the local, national, or global level; or across businesses, colleges, faith-based groups, and communities. Diverse people can be bound together by what they believe. That is, in large part, the reason why the oldest and longest standing human organizations in the world are churches and universities – because they bind people by beliefs.

Bottom line: We will unlock our greatest human potential when we bring diverse people together who believe in something bigger, something that transcends the boundaries of their own demography.

We have a challenge ahead of us as an increasingly diverse country – what will bind us? The answer is straightforward psychologically, if not politically: respecting our differences, avoiding doing “business” with only people who look and talk like us, and deciding what we all believe in that is enduring, true, and worth fighting for in order to keep our democracy thriving for another 100 years.

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