Working to heal the rupture that divides

Published 6:47 pm Friday, November 16, 2018


How scary can that label be?

By itself, the use or even thought of the other can define, delineate and often set apart those who might be different than you — in skin color, nationality, origins, physical abilities, sexual orientation — the list can go on forever. If one has a reason to find difference, it will be there.

The human species has an “us versus them” perspective baked in to how we process the world around us. To survive as early humans, mostly as hunters and gatherers moving across the landscape, being able to distinguish “like” and “different from” was critical to knowing classes of plants and species of animals, but also who were friends and enemies. Our ancestors could only travel as far as they could walk in a day, so enemies didn’t look that much different.

It wasn’t just fear that drove this in-group, out-group behavior, it was the need to know who friends were and who to build alliances with to better survive the uncertainty that confronted a group at every turn. Far better to reach out across the differences to grow alliances than to stockpile enemies. The “other” was just a stepping stone to “us,” but that meant doing the work of getting to know people different from us.

We are a conflicted species as we live with this tension today — that of keeping those different at a distance while needing to break down barriers to build healthy communities. Lately, to only see “other” seems to be the default stop on the lens we see the world through. Lost in this sharp focus on difference are the commonalities that bind the human species together across peoples and cultures. We share core values and beliefs with others around the world — the importance of family, the desire for a good quality of life, the nature of good and evil, the hope to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those in need — all of these are part of the human condition.

In the harsh rhetoric of late, it has been far easier to exploit differences than to remember our commonalities. The recent election featured difference as a threat and reinforced the “us versus them” mentality across our country. Coming together as a nation after this election might seem like a tall order. It will take a lot of work to begin to heal the rupture that divides us as a country: blue/red, conservative/liberal, rural/urban, white/black and brown, legal/illegal, straight/gay, and so many other polarizations. In the extreme, this rupture has expressed itself in hatred and violence. Divisiveness might work in winning elections, but when it comes to building strong, connected and resilient communities, “us” certainly works better than casting those different as “other.”

Perhaps we can borrow the slogan “all politics is local” and recast it as a remedy for our nation: healing starts locally. Little Washington is a very giving and friendly community, but the last several months has jaded even those who most cherish “us.” Connecting with neighbors and members of the greater community requires constant attention and effort. For example, seek out places, activities and causes in our community where you meet and spend time with those who may look, think or believe differently. Work to chip away at whatever conscious or unconscious biases may have been strengthened by months of polarization and inherent racism that has worked into our national conversations. Take time to walk a little in someone else’s shoes. We are all the same if we take time to scratch the surface and peer underneath.

Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the non-profit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.