Enough is enough – Control this “Us and Them” feeling

In pariament

Public brawl in Parliament


We saw this ‘Us and Them’ feeling merge the other day in Parliament. A public brawl within some members of Parliament who trooped into the well of the house in violation of parliamentary procedures. It resulted in a scuffle between a few government members and joint opposition members who are not fit to have come to parliament. It forced the Speaker of the House to take disciplinary actions against the offenders. The truth is it was the effect caused by the ‘Us and Them’ feeling among the members that has existed in members from the very first Parliament after independence. In the past on many occasions, it had caused the ‘Us’ legislators in power to take extreme measures of reducing the vote bank of ‘Them’ legislators to prevent their coming to power by removing the franchise of estate Tamil minorities who always voted for ‘Them’. Then there have been many incidents of violence advocated at various times that resulted in riots in many parts of the country, all due to this ‘Us and Them’ feelings in our rulers. In the recent past we saw how the ‘Us’ rulers bought the votes of the Tamil minorities to reduce the vote bank that prevented ‘Them’ coming to power.

With time more and more bad elements in society were given nomination to contest elections that have entered as members into the supreme legislative assembly of the sovereign people the nation. Of late the behavior of these new parliamentarians have crystalized to unacceptable low levels, especially after the formation of the National Government last August. Not just ‘Us and Them’ but to ‘Us versus Them’ causing such ugly, indecent and un-parliamentary never before incident to take place. These legislators have behaved like street thugs and hooligans inside the parliament, which caused blood to spill and injured hospitalized. The insiders in the ‘Us’ group are in a relation of peace, order, law and government to each other. Their relation to the outsiders in ‘Them’ group is one of suspicion and disgust. These relations demanded each other: ‘Loyalty to the group, sacrifice for it, hatred and contempt for outsiders, brotherhood within, war likeness without and yet they all grows together, common products of the same situation. Then one’s own group is at the center of everything, while all others are scaled and rated with reference to it. The tendency is for groups to call themselves “men” and regard others as less than fully human and is something else, perhaps not real men. With each of the main groups in parliament regarding itself as the leader of civilisation, the best, the freest, and the wisest, and all others as inferior.

This ethnocentrism if left unchecked will spread in no time to remote areas outside the parliament. Whether they wield their fists, as seen in parliament still isolated from outside, may influence them to build a crowd as they did on the May Day. These groups with powers race against each other, one day could challenge another to threaten with their weapons. These conflicts would lead to the verge of potentially lethal violence seen many times in the past. For people will coalesce into parochial groups at the drop of a hat, no matter how tiny, esoteric or spurious their differences, the people of this country has seen it many times in the past. The nation is yet to recover from the thirty year old civil war, during which saw many villages ‘kept separate by hostility, head hunting, and divergences of language and religion’ costing many lives and injuries to millions causing them to live with gloom, un-quantified damages to properties. It is therefore necessary for the civil society to keep vigil and induce co-operation by getting the two groups to work together for a common goal.

Before which all must recognize the basic human behavior to understand this “us and them” phenomenon. We all come into this world with an open mind and as a child do take to whatever language or culture that surrounds us. Growing up we listen to the strongest signals, while the others become less distinct. Thereafter our sense of ‘Us’ develops allowing our sense of ‘Them’ degrade. Then they gain the capacity to absorb prejudices; and they end up the kind of adults who say ‘They all look the same to me’ as an expression of disregard rather than a statement about perceptual faults. Even without any chauvinism, the sympathy for some causes the exclusion of others it affirms the lessons learnt from so much of human history.

Some common symptoms seen in among ‘us and them’ situations that we need to know and understand to overcome are:

  • Prejudice – Even if a stereotype is based in reality and many are not, it will not be true of every member of a group. Assuming that you know what someone is like because of the groups they belong to is prejudice, and it can keep you from rationally evaluating their motives and choices.
  • Partisanship – We tend to make positive assumptions about groups to which we belong. Among other assumptions, we believe that people who think like us are more rational and more informed than people with whom we disagree. This hinders reasoning because we accept arguments based on who makes them, not on their content or support.
  • Provincialism – We tend to think that issues affecting our identity groups are more important or more urgent than issues affecting other groups. This prevents us from accurately evaluating these issues.
  • Herd instinct – We make assumptions about what’s acceptable and popular in the groups to which we belong, and it’s often hard to go against these norms. When an opinion is unpopular, the herd instinct can make us inclined to ignore evidence so we can maintain beliefs that are in line with the mainstream beliefs.

In the early 1970’s, we saw just how little it took to create devotion to the South biased governing in-group and antipathy towards the North biased rebellious youth out-group that eventually led to the civil war that encompassed the whole country. When one reads many books about that civil war it leaves no room for doubt: people will coalesce into parochial groups at the drop of a hat, no matter how arbitrary, tiny, vague, esoteric or spurious the differences between them. Every attack and counter attack by those fighting at the battle field brought the biases to light, but they aren’t necessary. In-group love and bias against out-groups can arise even if nothing at all is at stake.

Then after the end of the war with in-group rulers just waited it to happen, the level of expenditure invested in group identity, religious rituals, and military parades, singing the anthem, or hoisting the flag might seem surprising. Clearly it is not a mere threshold-crossing effort, just enough to make them react. Rather, it is a way to make the most of the apparently limitless opportunities that the in-grouping reflex so readily offers. The investment goes where the dividends are sure to multiply, reinforcing the configurations with most power. Commonly that means provoking resentment from lesser able out-group and self-consciously obscene massacres by less clearly defined groups with the in-group. This is not a vision of progress, however, but of moral evolution.

We saw many people particularly the Tamil minorities were unsettled by the outbreaks of public celebration in the country that followed the end of civil war in May 2009, but bitter truth of reveling in the death of an enemy was a ‘good, healthy and even altruistic’ expression of group feeling. To think otherwise was to confuse what was right for individuals with what was right for groups for the two are different. Of course, that’s a slippery distinction when it comes to national sentiments. Love of one’s country is bound up with pride in it; and the pride encourages the belief in-group holding power that one’s own country is the best, freest and wisest, which induces feelings of hostility towards the out-group that fail to acknowledge, the bitter truth here is it is because the out-group are not accepted as equal in the country. Nevertheless, the relationship between in-group love and out-group hate should be investigated for they are in fact the two sides of the same coin is at the center of the psychology of ‘Us and Them’.

Enough is enough of this ‘Us and Them’ feeling that was seen in Parliament that is in all of us. Let us as a Nation attempt to overcome this mindset in us to build a better Nation for our future generations. Let us therefore help our Members of Parliament, which we elected to overcome or at least suppress their ‘Us and Them’ feelings. The uncoupling of in-group love from out-group hate has implications for whether contact between people of different cultures brings them together or pushes them apart. If attitudes within groups do not determine attitudes between them, it is logically possible that diversity reduces solidarity both within them and between them. In our country, diversity had undermined trust and social cohesion as a whole. It was noticed that communities distrust not merely people who do not speak like them, but even people who do. In diverse settings, people ‘hunker down’ and withdraw from each other, there are enough examples in the country of groups belonging to all communities. Nevertheless, diversity could in fact promote trust and cohesion if people from different backgrounds had a meaningful degree of contact with each other. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: after all, trust is an expectation about how others will behave. If you share their culture, norms and values, you might be confident in your ability to predict their behavior even without having anything to do with them. If you don’t, you just have to get to know them personally. Most importantly, we need to keep in mind that good reasoning doesn’t come naturally. In fact, humans are instinctively terrible reasoners most of the time, the way our brains work isn’t rational at all. Even with exceptional training in analytical thinking, we still have to overcome instincts to think simplistically and non-analytically.