Them and Us

When I was in college, we boys were divided among 9 hostels. Inter-hostel sports rivalries were fierce. While all of us we would cheerfully attend the classes, share notes and hang out the whole day, in the evening around the volleyball, football or basketball court we would hurl abuse at each other as if we were ready to leap at each others’ throats. All this was ignored the next morning where the same friendly routine continued.

In my second year, I had to take a humanities elective where I chose psychology. We were required to give a presentation on a topic of our choosing and submit a term paper on it. Choosing a topic is something that sounds fun form the outside, but once you have to do it, it is painful. The ideal choice for a single semester paper must be something that has sufficient material on it to prepare from while at the same time isn’t too generally known, is at least tangentially relevant to the course of study and isn’t dull enough to put the college student audience to sleep. Finally, it has to be unique in a class of hundreds.

The topic I finally chose was Logotherapy (maybe I’ll write another post on that some day). But for a long time, I thought about presenting what I termed it the “us vs. them” syndrome.

You’ve probably seen this around you. You may have also noticed instances of cognitive dissonance which result from this. I remember reading a newspaper column once in the Hindustan Times. An Indian journalist at an American airport was approached by another brown skinned man who identified himself as Sam. They got chatting and spoke about politics. At the time, Pakistan had recently undergone a military coup and put into power Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

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Pervez Musharraf, former military dictator of Pakistan

Turned out both of them disliked Musharraf and were appalled at the idea of a military dictator in Pakistan. Whereas the journalist was more concerned about the effect on regional security (Musharraf was responsible for the 1999 border conflict between India and Pakistan at Kargil), Sam seemed more worried about the impact on Pakistan’s institutions.

They spoke amiably for a while until it emerged that Sam was actually short for Sameer and he was a Pakistani businessman. Both of them then made excuses to end what had till then been a friendly conversation.

Today, I was reminded of this when I came across this video announcing the start of a free online course called Introduction to the Orbital Perspective by NASA astronaut Ron Garan.

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Ron Garan

Garan talks about how we construct simplified frameworks and narratives to make sense of the complex world around us. Unfortunately, these simple frameworks lead us to group people together and create labels for them. Even worse, we invent labels for ourselves or let other people label us. At the worst, we start seeing ourselves through the filter of these labels.

Labels confine us into groups and limit who we listen to and trust. They lead us to ignore the merits of others and replace empathy with generalizations and egotism. This is a 2 dimensional world view, a zeros sum game between us and them.

Yesterday, the sheer stupidity of such divisions was brought home to me from an unexpected source, Disney. Disney studios have been accused of sugar coating and bowdlerizing the harshness of reality. But for his 1940 masterpiece Fantasia, Walt Disney did not accept artistic compromises. Fantasia was a collaboration between Disney and conductor Leopold Stokowsy to bring classical music and culture to a wide audience by setting animated stories to match exceptional pieces of classical music.

Disney wanted to use Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to illustrate the dawn of life on Earth. From the hellish volcanic nightmare of prehistoric Earth where geological forces ran riot to the oceans where single cell life emerged. On to fish and to dinosaurs, the film shows the constant struggle for survival depicting nature red in tooth and claw.

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Igor Stravinsky drawn by Picasso

Disney employed the leading paleontologists of the day to ensure he could get the most accurate depiction as well as world famous astronomer Edwin Hubble. The result was a masterpiece.

While many of the details have been shown to be inaccurate with current scientific understanding, a fundamental message comes through. The march of life has always been balanced on a knife edge in a world that is indifferent to our desires and motivations. In the face of the universe around us, our feeble little labels are worth as little as dust in the wind.

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