Creating "We and They": Kwame Anthony Appiah

Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses how and why humans create a “we and they” distinction.

Transcript (Text)

Aristotle said we're a zoon politikon, a creature of the city, a creature of social life. Human beings are deeply and profoundly social. You can raise— I keep sheep in New Jersey. You can raise a lamb without the mother. You cannot raise a human being without other human beings. A child that's left alone away from human sociability just doesn't become a human being. So we're profoundly dependent upon our interaction with one another just to become a person at all.

We evolved— for much of the period in which we've been a distinctive species, we evolved living in very small groups. And the psychology we evolved in living in those small groups is one in which it was tremendously important to be able to hold onto protecting that small group, that 50 to 100, 150 people you lived with, against other species, against animals that might prey upon us, but more importantly against other groups of humans. And so we evolved with a psychology that's deeply sensitive to the distinction between insiders and outsiders.

This allowed us to survive as a social creature. It made these groups evolutionarily successful, but it has this tremendous downside, which is that the fundamental way in which we do it— the thing that you can so easily turn on in human beings, is an us/them distinction that puts 'them' really down. And that leads you to be willing to do terrible things to 'them' in the name of the 'us.'

And one of the amazing things about us as a species, I think— this is something that, looking at us from far away, as it were, out in the universe— one of the things that I think would strike anybody looking as amazing is we evolved in these tiny groups. And now, we're living in groups of 300 million Americans or 1 and 1/2 billion Chinese. And the very psychology that we use to make us/them distinction with 100, we're using with hundreds of millions. And it's sort of working.

But it has the costs of the risk of the downside. The xenophobic, other-hating side of us is, I think, part of our natures. And it's a part we have to manage.

So prejudice, sort of the stereotyping of the other, and for that matter the stereotyping of the self— the stereotyping of us as well as the stereotyping of them— these are parts of this psychology. And they are— again, we have to manage them carefully.

They allow us to do good things. How else could you organize 300 million Americans together if we didn't have some sense, some of us, that we're all Americans? I mean, the genius of it is that this form of psychology, this us psychology, has been mobilized to organize groups of strangers.

There are many forms of bigotry organized around the us/them distinction. And they have certain things in common. One is that we tend to sort of have a stereotype of the other which simplifies— even if it has elements of truth in it— it simplifies and reduces them. It makes it easier for us to care less about what happens to them. It makes it easier— it makes us inclined to have contempt for them, sometimes even hatred and so on. This is how this form of psychology works.

But every form of bigotry has its distinctive character. And around these forms of bigotry, when they get socially organized, whole elaborate cultural superstructures develop ideologies. And racism is one of them.

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