Looking for the ties that bind us together

Columnist Al Lehmann says common experience between people can be hard to come by, but is necessary to solve our mutual problems

Recently I’ve been thinking about the addictive separation of peoples into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ ‘us’ (composed of agreeable, like-minded, faith-sharing, allegiance-belonging folks) and ‘them’ (everybody else who differs more than we find comfortable from the aggregation of traits of which we approve).

The differences that separate are many and sometimes overlap. Conservative-liberal, old-young, male-female, gay-straight (or a seemingly increasing number of stations in between), rich-poor, urban-rural, first world-third world, sophisticated-primitive, and seemingly innumerable other categorical differentiators litter the cultural landscape.

But common experience of various sorts can create a powerful interpersonal magnetism to draw us back together.

Nationally we share everything from languages to expectations of the weather, common institutions such as schools, churches and hospitals, political parties, consumer products, urban design, and holidays. One need only travel to live in a far off country to discover the emotional and intellectual ties that anchor us to home, to those like us.

Thus we oscillate between the warm bath of the friendly and familiar, and the icy shocks of paranoid suspicion and disapproval.

How do we address this seemingly never-ending tension?

Sometimes we avoid it altogether, as if few things are so unpleasant that they cannot be ignored. We turn that ignoramus on the news channel off, we pretend no one really dislikes us (what did we ever do to them???), we stay home behind our walls of putative privacy, we chat more or less exclusively with agreeably like-minded folks.

Beyond these strategies, we sometimes make an honest attempt to address our broader social and political differences, enter the realm  of public debate, usually with the unstated premise that if we only shout loudly enough or refine our arguments cogently enough, the disagreeable ‘them’ will come to their senses and agree with us about whatever is at issue. After all, reasonable people agree with us.

Catastrophes can erase much of what under other circumstance might be irreconcilable differences. In our long intervals of self-absorption, the arrival of refugees of war, or the travails of people plagued by ebola or wildfire or hurricanes can suddenly awaken our sympathies and open our bank accounts.

Some veterans with whom I’ve spoken refer to the Second World War fondly as the best time of their lives. They may have witnessed horrors or suffered pains almost beyond description, but they also (usually) experienced the intense camaraderie of citizens facing a common threat. A young man who took part in the U.S. invasion of Iraq once remarked that within a platoon, companions who would normally have nothing to do with one another could become as emotionally intimate as spouses.

Over 40 years ago the rock band Pink Floyd wrote a song entitled “Us and Them”. Whoever wrote the lyrics was insightful enough to conclude that, “With, without, who’ll deny that’s what the fighting’s all about.” But he merely observed the problem, noting, “Us and them, And after all we’re only ordinary men.” What can we do?

Today we face challenges that far eclipse localized earthquakes, floods or epidemics. A warming atmosphere and acidifying oceans girdle the planet. “I’ve been breathing your air and you’ve been breathing mine.” Approve or not, these are everyone’s problems.

James Hoggan, an expert in public relations and communications, recently published I’m Right and You’re an Idiot, a book whose ironic title and honest reporting attempt to explore “the toxic state of public discourse and how to clean it up.” It’s a problem shared by a recent writer in this Terrace Standard space who bemoaned the difficulty Terracites are having agreeing on a solution to our homeless problem.

A wag once remarked that “no one ever listens to anyone else, and if you try it for a while, you’ll understand why.” Maybe so. But to solve our mutual problems we haven’t much choice.

Retired English teacher Al Lehmann lives in Terrace, B.C.