Learning to love us-versus-them thinking

Oppositional thinking is crucial to social change, but there are no permanent enemies.

James K Rowe
28 September 2015

Image credit: All rights reserved.

An oft-rehearsed refrain in contemplative communities is that everyone needs to overcome ‘us-versus- them thinking’ (which I’ll abbreviate as ‘UVTT’). This intention makes perfect sense. Dualistic thought informs many of the vexing ‘otherings’ that shape our social worlds along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, and ability (the sad string goes on and on). Inasmuch as UVTT contributes to these systems of domination, then it should be transformed.

But this is not the most common argument I hear from fellow contemplatives. Instead the most regular critique of UVTT is directed towards activists themselves. The argument runs like this: activists are in danger of replicating dualistic and oppositional thought in the way they conceive of and confront their adversaries. I recently spoke with Dawn Haney from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, an organization on the leading edge of engaged Buddhism. She reported how during Occupy Wall Street, the Fellowship heard from a number of Buddhists who were worried about the language of the ‘99 per cent versus the 1 per cent.’ ‘What about the 100 per cent’ many Buddhists asked?

It’s true that there’s no pure ‘us,’ perfectly free from the ills we criticize. Even as a Buddhist my ego regularly rears itself, causing suffering for myself and others. And even as an activist committed to social justice, dominative social scripts can still course through my veins, seeking the light of day. The ease with which ego and the hunger for control can mount guerrilla campaigns against our best intentions is good reason to work on ourselves even as we work towards social justice with others.

But none of this spells an end to us-versus-them thinking. In fact such thinking is crucial to processes of political change. To deny its power is to court irrelevance. Even worse, by not taking clear sides in struggles against  injustice, contemplatives can easily become de facto supporters of the status quo.

How divisiveness can unify: the case of fossil fuel divestment

The fossil fuel divestment movement exemplifies the benefits of UVTT. According to journalist Naomi Klein, “No tactic in the climate wars has resonated more powerfully.” In three short years the movement has succeeded in convincing over 2400 investors, holding combined assets of $2.6 trillion, to divest from fossil fuel companies. The divestment coalition includes financial powerhouses like the California Public Employees Retirement System, along with culturally powerful institutions like Stanford University, The World Council of Churches and the Rockefeller Foundation. This broad support is beginning to marginalize the industry and chip away at the political deadlock on climate change.

Why has the movement been so successful? Why has it resonated with the public in ways that previous climate mitigation efforts have not? Key to the movement’s popular traction has been fixing on one clear enemy: the fossil fuel industry. In the Global North we all consume fossil fuels, so we all contribute to climate change. But the vast majority of us don’t fund climate denial, nor do we obstruct climate legislation. Most importantly, we don’t profit fabulously from an industry that threatens the liveability of the planet. As Bill McKibben wrote in “Rolling Stone,” “we have met the enemy and they is Shell.”

Strong emotions such as anger, hope and solidarity facilitate individual actions that make up the collective work of social movements. UVTT can provide the emotional intensity, the directed anger (them!) and felt solidarity (us!), that are needed to spark a social movement. To forego UVTT when it comes to climate change is a dangerous choice; it misses the primary culprits and saps the emotional energy needed to power a movement.

Recently, Steve Douglas, A Vice President for tar sands giant Suncor, spoke at the University of Victoria where I work. He told the audience that fossil fuel divestment is too divisive. We can all work together, Douglas insisted—we can form the equivalent of an aerodynamic cycling formation and ride a slipstream to a carbon-lite future.

This is an attractive prospect. Unfortunately it’s also delusional. Fossil fuel companies like Suncor are fossil fuel companies; their business model necessitates the extraction and burning of carbon-intensive fuel sources that we need to keep in the ground. According to Suncor’s 2013 annual report, “the absolute GHG emissions of our company will continue to rise as we pursue a prudent and planned growth strategy.”

Intensive lobbying efforts will be integral to Suncor’s plans for growth, since they contradict the biophysical requirements for climatic stability. Douglas suffers like all humans, and I feel compassion for him. But his company is currently programmed to endanger a multitude of species I care deeply about (including my own). Steve can stay, but Suncor has to go.

As this case shows, the struggle should not be against UVTT thinking in general, but against the unskillful deployment of oppositional approaches. Here are four ideas that can help to discern forms of oppositional thinking that can serve the cause of justice.

Four Thought-Tools

1) The two truths. During my conversation with Dawn Haney, I asked her how she feels about Buddhist discomfort with oppositional thinking. For her, the insistence on two simultaneously existing dimensions of reality or ‘truths’ that’s integral to Buddhist philosophy —‘absolute’ and ‘relative’—can help ease any worries about political divisiveness. Absolute reality describes the ultimate interconnection that exists between all things and beings. Relative reality describes the different ways in which existence is manifested—as a rock or a tree or a person, along with the granular distinctions that exist within each of these categories.

Many of these differences are not politically salient. But humans have a knack for distributing unjust advantages that are based on existing or created differences like race, class, gender, and sexuality. These injustices are real but relative: they exist simultaneously with the absolute or ultimate interconnection of all beings, and the two truths can be helpfully applied to political and social struggles that aim to address them.

Hence, I can recognize my absolute enmeshment with my adversaries and feel compassion for their suffering, even as I seek to undo their relative privilege. The two truths allow for the deployment of us-versus-them thinking while also holding on to the absolute humanity of those we disagree with. Jumping straight to our absolute humanity without acknowledging the relative and historical divisions that have been imposed between us—“What about the 100 per cent?” “All Lives Matter!”—is an example of what Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams calls “premature transcendence.”

2) The difference between humans and systems. Racist people are not the same as white supremacy. The latter should be expunged from the world. The former are deluded and often vicious, but they hold within them a tender and aching human heart. Recognizing our absolute human connection to individuals who perpetuate systemic injustices does not mean that we have to love or forgive them. But it does mean that we can find compassion for their ignorance, even as we rail against the dominative systems they support.

While these systems and structures are crafted by human beings, the systems themselves are heartless. They have no capacity for compassion, so we don’t debase ourselves by seeking their destruction. The political end game is to uproot dominative systems while staying rooted to the absolute humanity of oppressors and enablers. Undertaken correctly, us-versus-them thinking stays focused on the systems that divide us, and that repress the possibilities for universal flourishing.

3) Unskillful UVTT. Us-versus-them thinking is dominative when it targets marginalized groups, or seeks to marginalize a non-dominative group. These effects are amplified when UVTT posits permanent or essential differences between groups—as when Larry Summers, then President of Harvard University, theorized that women were biologically inferior to men in math and science. Essentialism denies the absolute interconnection that exists between all beings, dampens the potential for universal flourishing, and interrupts our capacity to feel compassion and solidarity across our differences.

4) Skillful UVTT. By contrast, us-versus-them thinking is generative when it creates possibilities for universal flourishing. Targeting the 1 per cent and expropriating their wealth will cause them pain. But it will also create the conditions for broader social betterment. Imagine what could be accomplished with the concentrated wealth of the ‘billionaires club:’ universal day care and basic incomes, free universities and mass transit, and many more green spaces.

Ex-billionaires could also benefit from greater equity and the collective happiness and creativity it would enable, but UVTT can only be truly generative if it is also recognizes the impermanence of the ‘othering’ it produces. In other words, we can rail against the 1 per cent and the capitalist system that enables their dominance while also recognizing our interconnection with these new aristocrats. While it is currently obscured, this sense of connection can be made manifest in the here-and-now through social policies that promote universal flourishing.

UVTT united!

By not confronting companies like Suncor—by not making them a them and by trying to ‘get along’—we become complicit with their dangerous self-seeking. It is not hyperbole to note that the livability of our planet depends on our willingness to challenge those who systematically suppress the possibilities for universal flourishing.

When it is used correctly however, us-versus-them thinking deepens the connections that exist between different people. It is non-duality at work, a fierce and rich form of compassion. Embracing compassion of this kind is one of the keys to collective liberation.

An earlier version of this article was published by The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics.


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