How Powerful People Use ‘Us vs. Them’ To Divide The Masses—And The Antidote
Are we hardwired to categorize each other into 'Us vs Them?' Simply put, science says yes. But this hardwiring is remarkably easy to break. It's time we equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools to do so.
Why? Well, anything from powerful governments to mainstream and alternative media is consistently trying to divide us by focusing aggressively on our differences. A look at what occurred during COVID was the ability for powerful people to drive and control a narrative by confusing and divide the masses, ultimately to bring about greater authoritarian policy and control.
When we know how these mechanisms work and focus our consciousness in an effective way, these attempts to divide fail.
First a quick story.
When we first launched our membership I hired marketing teams to help. They would always tell me "in the sales messaging we need to create an 'Us vs Them dynamic' in order to get people to buy." I resisted.
I felt like that wasn't necessary and also contrary to our mission of unifying people to create a better world. But, the marketers were right. When we would A/B test sales messaging without 'Us vs Them' compared to sales messaging with it, the 'Us vs Them' messaging always won.
I have to admit this made me a bit sad. Was I thinking too idealistically about human beings? Maybe. But I always asked 'Why doesn't Us vs Them messaging work on me?" Before you suggest I'm naive and think "of course the messaging works on you," read to the end of this piece. You'll see how simply it is for this messaging not to work on anyone should they choose.
Neuroscience suggests that this Us vs Them biological trait developed thousands of years ago. As you might imagine, it had much to do with survival in much different times than we live in today.
It essentially states that human beings are primed to make very basic and categorical Us vs Them judgments. In fact, your brain is processing these Us vs Them differences in a twentieth of a second. These noticed differences are your classically promoted artificial constructs of: ethnicity, gender, skin color, age, socioeconomic class, and even something like sports team preference.
(I say artificial because social constructs tell us we should focus on these as differences. We don't actually have to see them as differences as we are ALL one species. Other animals do not engage their Us vs Them biology within their species - only we do - and it's a taught behaviour.)
All of this is enhanced by a multi-purposed hormone in our brain called Oxytocin.
Oxytocin has been shown to be a wonderful hormone for connecting and bonding with others that we know in our communities, 'Us'. It's often referred to as the love hormone or connection hormone. It essentially heightens meaningful connections with our in-group.
But on the flip side, studies have shown that when it comes to people who we see as strangers (Them), oxytocin creates a decrease in cooperation and increases envy when people are struggling. Further, it pushes one to gloat when they are 'winning.' In fact, there are many ways in which oxytocin is linked to dividing ourselves from 'Them' and keeping it that way.
In short, oxytocin enhances this Us vs Them divide. But, while this sounds like we may be doomed for division and judgment of others forever, what has also been shown is that these almost instantaneous judgements we make can be manipulated incredibly easily. And that's without bringing in a little bit of conscious awareness and presence.
Studies have shown that when you expose people to others who look different from them, the 'Us' wiring often turns on when people look similar, and the 'Them' wiring turns on when people look different. This showed an implicit judgment based on ethnicity.
Yet when those same people were exposed to people who looked the same and different from them but were now wearing baseball hats with team logos, things changed. Suddenly the participants brains indicated that Us and Them had nothing to do with ethnicity anymore, it was about which team they supported.
A tiny change created an instantaneous manipulation of who is Us vs Them. I wrote about a similar phenomenon in a recent piece called Racism Plummeted When People Were Told Aliens Exist. This showed that when humans were told aliens existed, the Us became humans, and the Them became aliens. Suddenly people were nicer to each other and more accepting of differences.
The point? It doesn't take much to for us to see each other as one, we just have to focus our consciousness a bit.
Consciousness Is Everything
There is much gained in our well being and in society when we become more self-aware, reflective and present. It moves unconscious and often automatic behaviour into a lens where we can ask: why do we do this?
Further, an increase in the above mentioned traits can lead to something as simple as stopping ourselves before we do something destructive out of anger. We can then pause for a short period, reflect, and respond.
The more we move from automatic, unconscious and reactive ways of living to present, reflective and conscious ways of living, the more harmony surrounds our lives.
What I'm saying can bring up similarities to new-agey, online influencer judgments that the 'conscious' are more than the 'unconscious,' this is not at all what I'm saying here. And I will expand in a moment.
First, I trust it's clear that we can be manipulated into different Us vs Them dichotomies very easily. Studies exploring implicit bias also show that when we are exposed to different people regularly, we become less judgemental towards their differences.
Even still, we can build self awareness around how WE play into these divides in order to diffuse them.
For example, during COVID government leaders like Justin Trudeau sowed division in Canada by making unvaccinated Canadians less than. He did this by calling them names and characterizing them in ways that would cause the general population to dislike them.
“They [the unvaccinated] don’t believe in science/progress and are very often misogynistic and racist. It’s a very small group of people, but that doesn’t shy away from the fact that they take up some space.”
He combined this rhetoric with un-contextualized and false data around vaccination status in Canada to strengthen his propaganda.
Note, I'm not focusing on Trudeau here because I'm "a Poilievre fan" or anything. In fact, I don't feel our current structure of politics is healthy nor serving us as people. I'm simply illustrating the ways in which our society has become 'lost' in division. Getting out of it requires us to take a close examination of what is happening so we can choose a different path.
In contrast, some unvaccinated people around the world began to refer to themselves as 'pure bloods' because they were not vaccinated. This led to memes, hateful rhetoric, and actions like avoiding and separating themselves from their vaccinated friends and families. Instead of attempting to understand why some became vaccinated, it was often simply seen as 'the vaccinated are sheep.'
Once again we see division, in/out groups, and greater than/less than beliefs.
In both cases we are seeing the destruction and damage that can occur when we allow our flimsy biological traits around Us vs Them to be fed and upheld by faulty information and propaganda.
What is also important to note is that our 'authoritative' institutions of government and mainstream media will often be guilty of this destructive behaviour which deeply normalizes it amongst the masses.
That said, we are not doomed. Consciousness is everything. By that I mean, the quality of our consciousness. The ways in which we slow down, reflect, and become more present in everyday life becomes an antidote to propaganda feeding Us vs Them.
This is why we have the section at the top of our articles to "Pause and set your pulse." To cultivate more presence and self awareness, check out a couple of the pieces of content I list at the bottom of this piece.
Let's go deeper. Perhaps why I have felt Us vs Them messaging does not work on me stems from: what happens when we have experiences that lead us to feel we are all one and interconnected with everything? I have had these experiences many times in my life. I experienced them through meditation, breath work, and even randomly.
Thrust into what can be best described as 'sensing the nature of our reality,' when you have these transcendental experiences you do not see yourself as all that separate from everything else. Sure, you are YOU, and you know you are an individual, but you also have a knowing of the connection and sameness you share with everything.
What happens if we nurture and hold that knowing in our consciousness and allow it to form our worldview? Does our sense of Us vs Them get triggered as easily? I don't think so. But that's my experience.
This direct experience has led me to believe that a shift in our consciousness can be one of the most powerful tools in changing the way we see each other and ultimately re-design our society - because it has to happen.
Albert Einstein had some thoughts on this as well:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
A task indeed, but one that is very possible with the right practice and focus.
Education Is Key Too
Why are things the way they are? We have to explore content that seeks to answer these questions. Instead of using social media for fast memes, 15 second videos, and short out of context video clips, deepen your knowledge. Consume less, but spend MORE time on each thing you consume.
Buying into this fast and distracting culture of information consumption is only furthering the problems we have. Social media algorithms are rigged to build an echo chamber around you and to give you 'truth' that confirms your existing bias'. This is not real education.
As for the biological trait itself, why can't we focus our attention on our human similarities instead of our differences? We can. But culturally we have learned not to because somewhere along the lines it's what we chose to obsess over.
Perhaps because powerful people glean more power by dividing masses. Perhaps because our current economic systems thrive off division, competition, and having various classes. Either way, we're making this all up as we go. It doesn't have to be like this.
For those who might think "this is our biology. We will always do best in small groups of the same type of people," this doesn't appear to be true. Studies have shown that diversity trumps ability. Diversity significantly enhances the level of innovation in organizations around the world.
Groups of only 'like-minds' become echo chambers and our efficiency and innovation suffers. Yet another reason we must learn to love, respect and communicate with one another.
(Note: here I'm pointing to the uncovering our potential as humans and having that be our driver. Not productivity and innovation tied to making more money and having a 'bullish market economy')
The key is that consciousness can overcome a flimsy biological trait that produces Us vs Them thinking within us. We can engage experience and education that connects us to our similarities, adopts a consciousness of interconnection and a shared stewardship of our planet and people.
Everything from 'woke ideology' constantly obsessing over our differences, to political news commentary always inviting people to 'dislike the other side' is contributing to a worse direction for humanity. Don't just sit there and blame it though, simply choose to engage differently. Improve how you use social media. Consume less content but go deeper.
Consciousness is the power here. Why can't we extend our worldview of who we are into oneness and a deeper connectedness? Why must we fight to shut off our wonder and hold to petty differences?
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