Why we need no ‘them’

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of difference – here. We are all different, and through the distinctions we weave our own unique lives and are able to craft relationship and create change. How then can the idea that ‘there is no them’ be even remotely useful given that it seems to negate ideas of difference?

One of the notions in the green movement is, ‘there is no away’. This pertains specifically to throwing things away. Everything goes somewhere, and it is still ‘here’. There is nowhere we can put man-made disasters ‘away’ such that they will cease to be a problem. We only have this one planet, after all, and everything is ‘here.’ This is the sense in which ‘there is no them.’ We are all here too, living on this same world, dependent on the same resources. We all need the air to be breathable, the water to be safe to drink. There is no one, human, animal, or other, whose fate is not bound up with the fate of the planet. We all feel, we all suffer, and ultimately, we all die.

Western society, and capitalism are competitive systems. One person benefits from another one suffering. We get cheaper goods by having them made in poor conditions by people in little better than slavery. We pillage the resources of other countries to fuel our hunger for consumer rubbish that we don’t actually need. One of the things allowing us to do this is a belief that might is right. We are the fittest and therefore we will survive, and if others fall by the wayside, that’s all to the good of the gene pool. That only works with a very specific attitude to difference. What does it matter if people in other countries are starving, if we can afford a new game for the Wii? Us and them. That’s no kind of right.

We care about us. Where we place the dividing lines between us and them varies – circumstance has a lot to do with it. How many people in the UK, and a lot of other countries, protest vehemently that they don’t want asylum seekers coming here and sponging off us? And how many of those people would up sticks if their own lives were in danger? It’s different when it’s us. What happens to them, is not our problem.

Fear makes us hold tightly to the resources we have, and protect them. Our land, our freedoms, our rights – even when the very things we want to protect may be being eroded by the measures we take to protect them. ‘Freedom’ in the UK has been under threat from the measures we wanted to take against terrorism. Countries that pride themselves on being inclusive take up strident laws against Islam, afraid of what Islam will bring, crushing the very ideas of freedom it’s supposed to protect. Because ‘they’ are different and alien and will take away something that is ours. Whoever ‘they’ are at any given moment in history.

Acknowledging difference is one thing, but treating that difference as implying different worth, is another. If we are afraid of each other, then signs of difference are symbols of threat, and we respond accordingly. Why are we so fearful? We have more money, security, life expectancy etc than our ancestors ever did. We have health and wealth in abundance, and we are so afraid of someone taking it away from us that we’d rather hang on to it very tightly than try to make the world fairer. No one wants to give up their perceived ‘rights’ to the ‘good stuff’ for something as minor as ensuring the long term viability of our species and planet. We’re all guilty of that one to some degree, myself most certainly included. I have money that I’m not currently devoting to making the world a better place. I keep promising that when my life is more stable, I will. We can all do more.

Celtic and Viking notions of hospitality required you to open your doors to strangers and welcome them in. Give them food, a bed, a place by the fire. There are stories from pagan cultures across Europe about the Gods testing people by appearing to them as impoverished travellers, rewarding the generous, punishing the stingy. How many of us would receive the blessings of a travelling deity today? Our ancestors had far less wealth, and were far more willing to share it with folk in need. I have a feeling this is a way of behaving that begins with the idea that we are all basically honourable. These days, ‘we’ suspect that ‘they’ are not honourable. ‘They’ are bogus, fraudsters, thieves and folk too lazy to pay their own way. We assume the worst of each other, and so decline to give the best of ourselves. Perhaps if we can recognise that we are all in this together, we can change that for the better.