An Introduction to Our Topic: Us and Them

Our minds categorize, our language defines and distinguishes, and our bodies are primed to fear the stranger; othering, the theme for this third issue of Inspire Solutions, comes all too naturally to us. Indeed, some psychologists suggest that as much as 80% of the population in western democracies display subtle biases against those deemed different that are acquired from the culture at large and are “automatic, unconscious and unintentional” (Fiske 2004: 127). This tendency can obviously be easily manipulated, as demonstrated so effectively by Jane Elliott’s well-known experiment in her grade 3 classroom, where, in a span of a few hours in 1968, she was able to turn friends against each other simply on the basis of their eye color. 

On the positive side, these frequently unconscious responses can be resisted by an explicit awareness –one that surely should be promoted by education – of our shared humanity.  As one of our contributors demonstrates, exchanges between divided groups that are grounded in equality, cooperation and interdependence can help alleviate our negative biases towards members of the other group.  Other research focuses on the role played by the amygdala, the part of our brain that plays a key role in fear and aggression and which is typically activated when we are exposed to strangers from a different group. But, as Susan Fiske has found, if we subtly bias people to think of these others as individuals, rather than as members of a group, the amygdala is not triggered.

It is perhaps a truism to say that all acts of violence have their root in the devaluing of others, but one can obviously not intentionally harm those we consider our equals. Anti-bullying expert Barbara Coloroso compares schoolyard bullying to genocide, suggesting that both are ultimately about “contempt – a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior, or undeserving of respect(2007:54). Psychologist Ervin Staub, rescued as a young boy from Nazi-controlled Hungary by Raoul Wallenberg, has spent his life seeking understanding into the human potential for treating others with great brutality and caring for them often at risk to themselves. In his view, collective atrocities develop from difficult but not uncommon life conditions that threaten basic psychological needs, such as one’s sense of security or identity; societies that openly devalue others, particularly when this devaluation becomes part of a culture and is expressed in its literature, art and media, are most at risk of taking a destructive path under these conditions (1989). This understanding of human violence and our innate capacity to engage in us and them emphasizes the fragility of social peace and reveals the disconcerting truth that those who commit violence are not necessarily that different from us.

This issue of Inspire Solutions offers us much on which to reflect. Louisa Hadley discusses the role of language in othering, and in particular examines the history of the word “gay”. Madeleine Côté deepens our understanding of this topic by looking further into the biological roots of us and them and argues that insight into these innate tendencies offers us a means of resistance. In “In the Name of Equality?”, Leila Bdeir examines the minority Parti Quebecois government’s proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols by those working in the public sector, including teachers – an initiative that, while only very recent, seems to have already given license for public expressions of hatred towards religious minorities, particularly Muslim women. Her article focuses on the presence of othering within the feminist movement. In “A Penny for Your Thoughts”, we read a reflective account of Dipti Gupta’s’ own struggle as a mother and educator to respond effectively to the bullying of her own daughter, while Michael Duckett concludes with a thoughtful and provocative discussion of how he, as a straight, white, economically-advantaged male, confronts stereotypes in his classroom and has come to value the other within himself.

Pat Romano

Humanities, Dawson College





One Response to An Introduction to Our Topic: Us and Them

  1. FlorenceV May 9, 2016 at 8:02 pm #

    On avait parlé en classe de l’expérience que le professeur a fait avec ses élèves et je trouve que c’est très intéressant. Je pense que ce thème est tout à fait relié aux problèmes d’intégration d’aujourd’hui. Cela me fait penser par exemple aux homosexuels. Si au départ il n’y avait eu aucune discrimination par rapport à ces personnes, est-ce qu’il existerait encore des personnes avec la difficulté d’annoncé qu’ils sont homosexuels? Selon moi si tout le monde était ouvert d’esprit il y aurait beaucoup moins de problèmes d’intégration et d’opinions opposés.

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