Us vs Them is easy. Accentuate differences. Point out flaws. Ridicule the other. Draw battle lines.
Us and Them is tougher. Dig below differences to find common ground. Uncover the threads of humanity. See the whole person. Find the “We.” Have the courage to love and respect amidst hate.
Historically, Us vs Them thinking had a legitimate purpose. Our ancestors needed to quickly clarify the enemy so that they could more readily recognize and avoid daily threats of existential danger. It was a blunt instrument unconcerned with nuance or deep understanding, but it protected the tribe from attack or starvation. Division had a clear survival purpose.
Now that we live in a world of interconnected mutual dependency, division creates more harm than good. We still have threats of existential danger, but they’re not just tribal, they’re global, impacting all of us. Threats include disease, climate change, hunger, inequality, and poor education. The more time we spend focused on our differences, the less time we have to find solutions to these pressing complex global challenges. To move beyond outdated Us vs Them thinking we must truly hear each other and learn how to compromise together. For this we need bridge builders.
The power and potential of bridging divides was never clearer than on April 4, 1968 when Robert F. Kennedy addressed a predominately African American crowd in Indianapolis, breaking the news to them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. He scrapped his prepared campaign remarks and instead delivered an improvised speech that would come to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American History. With tensions running high and riots breaking out in several cities around the country, Kennedy’s words provided calming reassurance. In Indianapolis no riots broke out. It’s the type of leadership we need today.
A few excerpts from Kennedy’s speech:
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another…
… What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black…
…We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.
Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
The power in Kennedy’s speech lies in its restraint. At a moment when he could have tried to rile the crowd in an effort to polarize and divide for political gain, he instead provided unity. At a moment when he could have used angry rhetoric, he chose love and compassion. And at moment when he could have avoided appearing altogether, he chose to stand amongst the people and stand up for what is right.
We need more bridge builders like Kennedy right now.