Saturday, April 16, 2011

Us versus Them

One of my cats brought a sparrow in this morning, still alive, and proceeded to play with it for a few minutes before eating it. Yeah, I know, not the way I wanted to start the day. But it got me thinking. This same cat acts terribly distressed if either of the other two cats in our household is sick or injured, but he didn’t care a whit about the bird as he tormented it and then bit its head off.

Numerous studies have shown that animals feel empathy for members of their ‘families’ - parents, offspring, members of the same pack or pride. If one of those ‘family members’ is sick or injured they are distressed. If one of them dies, they grieve. They’re just like us. Or perhaps, we’re just like them.

The thing is, though, animals apparently feel no empathy whatsoever for their prey. They not only kill and eat with impunity, but many animals, from big cats to orcas, have been seen to play with their prey, often cruelly, before finally dispatching it. For these animals, family is family and prey is prey, and never the twain shall meet.

And I began to wonder if this isn’t something we do, as well, though we’re loathe to admit it. Around the world, most groups of people have names for themselves which mean, essentially, ‘people.’ In other words, we’re people and everyone else is not. They’re enemy. Or prey.

There is a great deal of evidence showing that human societies were cannibalistic, at least occasionally, for much of prehistory and occasionally into historical times. I suspect that cannibalism was a hedge against hunger in times of drought, animal population crash, natural disaster and so on. But we’ve moved on past that stage in our grisly history. Or have we?

We still have Us versus Them. The military teaches its soldiers that the enemy is just ‘an animal walking upright on two legs.’ Not human. Not people. Prey.

We create divisions among ourselves all the time based on beliefs, nationality, physical characteristics, ethnic origins, lifestyle choices. There are people like us, and then there are the Others. They’re different. Not us. Somehow inferior.

Sure, we’re more socially evolved now so we don’t call them subhuman the way the slave owners talked about the slaves, but the underlying current is still there. And what does this division do? It allows us to feel less empathy toward those who are different. It’s the same as classifying the world into Us and Prey. We care about our own. We feel nothing toward prey.

I’ve been conducting a little experiment lately. Having grown up in this divisive society, I’m as guilty as the next person of mentally dividing the world into People Like Me and Others. But I’m doing my best to deprogram that divisive, destructive mentality. When I catch myself thinking about ways in which someone is different from me, I remind myself that we’re both human beings. My fellow humans are all around me. My family.

Every single person on this planet is different. If I wanted to, I could keep dividing it down until Us versus Them became Me versus Everyone Else. I’ve seen some people do that. It’s sad and scary.

I enjoy all the differences. They make life interesting. But I refuse to let them divide me from the rest of humanity. The interesting thing is, once I started doing that with people, I found myself doing it with other living things as well - animals, trees - and even things that modern science doesn’t consider to be alive - stones, bodies of water. Once you start making connections, it’s hard to stop.

To all my relations, I greet you.