Redefining ‘us’ and ‘them’

We humans can be huge jerks, and we’re getting better at it every day. Society, however cracked, provides a structure that encourages good behavior* and discourages the bad. Most of us would behave a bit worse if we knew we wouldn’t be caught or censored. Where the enforcement mechanisms of society are lower we reflect its expectations less and less and exhibit our own raw desires more.

The Internet is humanity’s most recent and most free arena for social expression. There are close to 232 possible forums where people can come in contact. The rules vary among them, but in general it has increased anonymity and reduced social expectations in comparison to the “real world.” And with that comes an acceptance of behavior that would not be expressed, or expressed as strongly, elsewhere. It is true that anonymity and technical implementation permit the jerks to spread havoc out of all proportion to their actual numbers, but the majority of seasoned Internet users are used to blocking out and combating such people. It’s not the griefmongers who are alarming, it’s the normal people who finally get to say what they think.

The Internet is a good barometer (in a totally nonscientific and mathematically-unsubstantiated manner of speaking) of what people are up to — at least, the people on the site under examination. Here’s a macabre experiment: go to a well-frequented website with coverage of political, social and religious issues — is one of many good options — find an article about something politically controversial, and read the comments.

Notice the tenor of the comments. Let the antipathy wash over you like a big warm antipathetic wave. Read some other articles. Check out some other sites. The comments will vary depending on the policies and political leanings of the site (and we’re all partisan now), but the same general tone is almost certain to be found throughout: thorough demonization, of each poster’s very own special nemesis; compulsive reference to those nemeses, even if the article doesn’t really have anything to do with them; casual dehumanization of the aforementioned nemeses, through name-calling and such; and precious little logic. That’s us, folks; or it would be if we had that much free time on our hands.

The most chilling aspect of these comments is not the emotional fervor but the serene conviction. The nemesis is generally presented as an inherently— and immutably-malevolent creature with no real value and no shared identity with the person who comments. Rarely is there any doubt about the statements being made, rarely is there any acknowledgement that the nemeses are a set of individuals and not a homogenous collective. Rarely is there any explanation, analysis, outreach. The commentors are serene in their perfect authority, knowing all and judging all. Their enemy is easy to liquidate because they have nothing at stake.

At the heart of all this is the question, “What does it mean to be me?” What is the defining part of me, what is my engine of worth? My finely-honed powers of taking an idea and running with it have led me to the conclusion that our identities are drifting farther and farther apart. The thing that gives each of us the perception of value, our engine of worth, is defined less and less in terms of the things that make us the same and more in terms of the things that make us different.  We aren’t an “us” anymore**.

If my self-worth is based on a trait, then I must behave consistently toward that trait. If we share a trait and that trait has worth in me, then it must have worth in you. If I believe that a trait I possess is fundamentally valuable, I must value it in all who share it.  If you and I share such a trait, and I love myself, then I must also love you. If I hate you, I must also hate myself. This establishes a baseline of worth that demands respect. No matter what kind of conflict we involve ourselves in, we must value those minimum traits or we will annihilate our own justification for existence.

If our engines of worth are not shared, we are free to damage each other to the ultimate extent without damaging our own self-worth. But if it is good and just to treat other people like this, then what exactly makes me different from — and therefore subject to different standards than — them?

What does it mean to be a functional person (not simply doing the right thing, but being a person)? If you value those properties consistently, then what does that mean for your enemies? If your enemies are inherently and immutably evil, then what exactly is the difference between them and you that makes you better? If your opponent really has no capacity to think, what’s the difference between them and you? If your opponent has no right to make decisions (especially bad ones), what gives you that right?

Is there a fundamentally-correct definition of “us” to which we should aspire? If so, then no amount of convenience justifies ignoring it. But what if it’s an issue of pragmatic utility (hey, it’s darn useful to unperson our enemies)? The tighter you draw the line, the more homo sapiens you can dismiss with fewer consequences to yourself. But it also leaves you with less and less to stand on, and sooner or later you will be whittled to a needle’s point or crushed beneath the weight of unexamined contradictions.

It is easy to say that we should value our shared identity, but that is based on the assumption that a shared identity ought to exist, that our worth ought to be based on many of the traits we humans have in common. If it’s really true, we have to really mean it. If not, well, carry on.

*As defined by whom?

**Yeah, and were we ever?