Today I read a fantastic interview with Bills Clinton and Gates on Wired. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, because a lot of great things were said. These are two people who lived incredible, noteworthy lives, retired, then, for no other reason than because, proceeded to start second incredible, noteworthy lives.
Because they know there are people in the world who could benefit from their help.
Because they have a short time on Earth, and want to fill that time with meaning.
Because they care about humanity.
Because they can.
Of the things I took away from the interview — that hit me the hardest — was this concept of Us and Them, often thought of us “Us versus Them.” The idea was brought up when Bill Clinton was responding to the question “Clearly, both of you are optimists. In the past few years, when it’s been tough politically and economically, has that optimism been challenged?” This was part of Clinton’s response:
The whole history of humanity is just one long battle between conflict and cooperation and between us and them. Bill Gates made the money that enabled him to do this magnificent work today, because we kept expanding the definition of us, whoever the us was, and shrinking the definition of them. Yeah, this is tough, and there are a lot of complex psychological identity questions in American politics today, aggravated by this long-stagnant economy for most people. But we’ve had a lot of periods of bitter conflict. We’re going to get through it.
And then he went on to say other wonderful things, as if he didn’t just say the most remarkable thing I’ve ever read on Wired.com (no offense, Wired).
Anthropologists will tell you that we socially evolved to be tribal creatures. As a byproduct of this, there’s this number limit (I can’t think of it off the top of my head) at which we are no longer able to effectively empathize with other humans. If 10 people tragically die, we’re able to effectively feel that pain and empathize with their loved ones. But if, say, the number increases to 500 (I don’t even think it’s close to this many) we are no longer able to process it. Our brains aren’t wired that way. We won’t even feel the empathy that we might have for 10. It’ll just wash over us.
Another byproduct of our tribal evolution is the abstract feeling of attachment to those with whom we identify — we could call these the Us. Thousands of years ago, Us meant family. We traveled in extended family packs, protecting our immediate relatives from harm, living with and from one another. Us meant blood.
As time went on, Us evolved from family, to groups of families called clans, to groups of clans called tribes, then to towns, and cities. With organized religion came a religious Us, and with the establishment of formal nation-states and borders came nationality Us.
With the evolution of Us came the evolution of Them.
The original Them was anyone who wasn’t blood related — Them was pretty much everyone. Over time, as the number of people in Us got bigger, Them got smaller. Them now might mean anyone in any other country. This is a common Them in America, and a Them that only (light use of this word) consists of 95% of the world. Another common Them in America is anyone who isn’t Christian, which is a measly 68% of the world, or roughly 4.8 Billion Thems.
In a relatively short amount of time, Us went from being a fraction of a percent of humanity and Them the rest, to some people experiencing an Us of more than two billion other people, far more than were ever alive at the onset of Us and Them.
Most people experience varying degrees of connection to a variety of the Us in their life, from their immediate family, to their tribe or town, state, country, and, if they have one, religion. Sometimes one Us conflicts with another, as in cases where national identities persecute religious identities (a Christian in Kenya; a Muslim living in the United States). Some people have no perspective of Us, and see only Them. My heart hurts for those people. And some people are constantly trying to expand their internal understanding of Us, and diminish their Them. You might call these people humanists. I am one of them (phrasing?).
Reading that interview with Bill and Bill, two people who have so much, and who have experienced so much, it is incredibly hard to think of them as an Us. They are a Them — an elite, wealthy, powerful Them. But are they? That’s the trap of Us and Them, and the ways our minds have been tricked to think after thousands of years of socio-biological evolution. We don’t need to be afraid any more. In fact, it’s that fear, that manifests in xenophobia and ethnocentrism, that is the only thing left we are justified in being afraid of.
The world is getting too small for both an Us and a Them. Us and Them have become codependent, intertwined, fixed to one another. We have no separate fates, but are bound together in one. And our fear of one another is the only thing capable of our undoing.
Update Nov. 14, 2013 10:47pm — I stumbled upon a mini-documentary called Overview by The Planetary Collective that does an amazing job of presenting the gist of what I talk about in this post, and left this idea even more firmly impressed upon my brain. I hope you’ll take the 20 minutes to watch this, and another couple hours to let it rattle around your mind.