Seminar Three
Warfare, genocide and ethnic conflict
We and they

An illustration of the we-they dichotomy

One of the foremost evolutionary biologists of our time, Edward O. Wilson, has argued that a we-they tendency characterizes human nature. In the we-they dichotomy, people are placed inside and outside of an imaginary mental circle. Consider the following examples:

light skin dark skin
Democrats Republicans
men women
heterosexual homosexual
Christians Muslims
pro-choice pro-life
rich poor

Those on the outside are often considered inferior, even subhuman. However, the boundary between we and they can shift suddenly under the right circumstances.

George Orwell recounts a remarkable story in his essay, “Looking back on the Spanish War.” He saw a man running for his life half-dressed, holding up his pants with one hand. “I refrained from shooting at him because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to your self.” A mental switch flipped, and the man was instantly reclassified from nonperson to person.

During the first World War, German and English troops in December 1914 laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together. This touching story is retold in the movie Joyeux Nöel and in a ballad by John McCutcheon, with the last line: “And on each end of the rifle we're the same.”

In Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Jonathan Glover describes another equally poignant incident, as told to him by David Spurret, an eyewitness:

In 1985, in the old apartheid South Africa, there was a demonstration in Durban. The police attacked the demonstrators with customary violence. One policeman chased a black woman, intending to beat her with his club. As she ran, her shoe slipped off. The policeman was a well-brought-up young Afrikaner, who knew that when a woman loses her shoe you pick it up for her. Their eyes met as he handed her the shoe. He then left her, as clubbing her was no longer an option.

In all three of these examples, a they person is moved instantly into the inner circle. We may humanize our pet animals at the same time that we dehumanize other humans!

Orwell, George. “Looking back on the Spanish War.” New Road, 1943.
McCutcheon, John. ”Christmas in the Trenches.” Winter Solstice. Rounder, 1984.
Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0-300-08700-0