Us and them

There is something in our evolutionary history that we seem not be able to shake off when we should. We all too easily become tribal and split ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We can define ourselves by the groups we belong to, formally or informally. Work (including department versus department, team versus team), school, church, hobbies. All can help us form part of our sense of identity, but the danger is that we then regard those not in that group as ‘the others’. As if any of us defined ourselves by what we are not.

History is rife with examples of extreme consequences of putting people into the category of the ‘others’, different from us in some way.

The Nazis were an obvious example of this. Anyone who did not conform to their concept of what an acceptable human being should look like (both behaviourally and physically) was consigned to be one of the ‘others’, with the terrible consequences that followed.

And then there are the refugees. Another case of them being, in some people’s eyes, no more than the ‘others.’


How the ‘others’ live? Discuss…

Politicians are perhaps another example of people we can easily consider different from ‘us’. And that makes it much easier to consider them as fair game. I think it’s perhaps just another form of us wanting to be judged by our intentions rather than our acts, but judging others by their acts rather than their intentions.

And it’s perhaps in that context that I’m now seeing the storm in a teacup that was the Rifkind/Straw case. Someone decided that politicians were legitimate targets for a sting operation. There was, as far as I can see, no suggestion that the twelve politicians who were selected for this operation had previously done anything wrong which merited exposure. It looks much more like a fishing expedition to see what might come out of it. And what did come out of it? That they were considering how to earn a living after they had left parliament. That they were able to command fees which are out of the reach of almost anyone else. Certainly of anyone we might actually know – ‘us’. That they had properly disclosed their existing outside interests, which are allowed under parliamentary rules. And that they – like, I would suggest, every single one of us – said some things in a conversation which were ambiguous, capable of misinterpretation, or downright factually incorrect. Like Rifkind saying he didn’t earn a salary. He now says it was a silly thing to have said and that of course he was being paid a salary as an MP. But none of ‘us’ has every said something which stretched the truth a bit (or a lot), which sought to make us seem in some way better than we are. We just haven’t been recorded doing it. Unless you count the content of some CVs.

Was it a legitimate investigation for the media organisation in question to have run? I think it probably depends on your view of how to judge this. If it had revealed serious wrongdoing, I think we would collectively have concluded that the ends justified the means. And, implicitly, that lying and pretending to be someone else in order to get to a truth which would otherwise remain hidden, is justifiable in some cases. Which is not to say that it was right in principle, without knowing the outcome. And some might say that behaving truthfully trumps the question of the outcome which might result. It’s an age old debate.

Either way it is a far cry from the kind of work others have done. In my case, the man I know best in the area of undercover journalism is a German (surprise, surprise), Günter Wallraff. He made his living for decades by taking on the persona of a member of a societal group which we can so easily think of as the ‘others’. An alcoholic, a homeless person and as a Turkish Gastarbeiter. His book on the latter, Ganz Unten (Lowest of the Low) is one I will never forget. He experienced and recorded what it was like to be a foreign worker in (what was then) West Germany. It was not pleasant, and perhaps for that reason it has stayed in my mind every since. He was not without his critics, including those who considered his methods to be inappropriate (for which read unethical). The main German tabloid, Bild, later accused him of having been one of the East German Stasi’s unofficial collaborators. A court agreed with him that there was no proof that this had ever been true. Back to media ethics again. Ironically, Wallraff had also in the past worked (again, undercover) for four months as an editor at that same newspaper and had exposed some of the practices there. It was also the only newspaper that refused to allow me access to any of its journalists to explore their concept of media ethics with them. They were ‘too busy.’ Clearly more so than those at all the other newspapers. It said a lot.

Survey after survey shows us that we consistently believe ourselves to be better than the average in almost any area (I say almost because there might be an exception rather than because I know of any).

On the basis of the evidence I have of my own actions (even if not recorded for public scrutiny) I don’t think I could claim to be better than anyone else in not getting all tribal and letting my T-100,000 years man take over. But I am pretty sure the world would be a better place if we could move on from that place. We aren’t living in caves any more.




There is another way of saying this that you are much more likely to remember in years to come, because someone else said it better than I can. Martin Niemöller was a German minister who vocally opposed the National Socialists and spent (and survived) seven years in concentration camps. He wrote this poem. It says it all. In someone’s eyes, we are all the ‘others.’

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

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