What is old and what is new in the dialectic of 'us' and 'them'?

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Original text: Zygmunt Bauman, University of Leeds, UK

The division of humans into ‘us’ and ‘them’—their juxtaposition and antagonism—has played an essential role in human existence throughout history of the human species. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ are as related as heads and tails—two faces of the same coin (and a coin with but one face is a contradiction in terms). The history of Homo sapiens may be written as the story of successive extensions of the volume of ‘us’—integrated human groups—from the primitive horde of hunter-gatherers that would have included in the notion of ‘us’ no more than 150 members, to the ‘imagined community’ of the modern nation-state. It may also be written—and so far, indeed, has been written—as the story of ‘them’ against whom other groups, of whatever size, consolidate. Indeed, the idea of being ‘one of us’ derives its meaning primarily from ‘not being one of them,’ and only secondarily from being ‘unlike them.’

As the great Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth convincingly argued[1], borders are not drawn in order to separate differences. Rather, differences are searched for, found or invented in order to legitimise and fortify (preferably to the point of non- permeability) borders that have already been drawn or that are intended to be drawn. The snag is that in most and perhaps all such cases, fully and truly airtight, leak-proof and impassable non-porous borders are both logically and practically unachievable. Borders create not only ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but also bring into being, well-nigh inevitably, a cognitive and behavioural ‘grey zone’ of conceptual ambiguity and ethical/axiological ambivalence; an area reminiscent of the territories marked on ancient maps as ‘hic sunt leones’—a sphere of the unknown that is not only dangerous but also, for that reason, incommunicable. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, ‘If lions could speak, we wouldn't understand them’[2].

As for the residents of (or exiles to) the grey frontier zones, the condition of ‘being unknown and therefore menacing’ is the effect of their inherent or imputed resistance to and eluding of assignment to any of the cognitive categories that serve as building blocks of ‘order’ and ‘normality.’ Their cardinal sin or unforgivable crime consists of being the cause of the mental and pragmatic incapacitation that follows the behavioural confusion that they cannot but generate (Wittgenstein defined understanding as ‘knowing how to go on’[3]).

Moreover, that sin or crime presents formidable obstacles to redemption, given the stout refusal of ‘us’ to engage with ‘them’ in a dialogue aimed at defying and mitigating the initial impossibility of understanding them. The assignment to a grey zone is a self-propelling and self-intensifying process that is set in motion and driven not so much by a breakdown of communication but rather by an a priori refusal to communicate. Raising the difficulty of understanding to the rank of a moral injunction and duty predetermined by God or History is, after all, the prime cause of and paramount stimulus to drawing and fortifying, mostly (though not exclusively) along religious or ethnic lines, borders separating ‘us’ from ‘them.’ As the interface between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the grey zone of ambiguity and ambivalence inevitably constitutes the main, and all too often the only, territory on which the implacable hostilities between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are played out and the battles are fought.

As described so far, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dialectic is a constant of the human condition. However, it also contains historical, time-bound variables as the game of self- identification and separation (or, to be precise, the game of separation because of self- identification and the game of self-identification through separation) confronts new issues and challenges posed by changing techniques of domination and technologies of social action.

One such challenge has been the need to shape a replica of the orthodox, territorial form of separation inside cyberspace. The Internet is notorious for creating the freedom to ignore border-posts and to cross frontiers. This challenge has been met: contrary to many a hopeful prognosis, the near-universal 24/7 availability of access to instant communication regardless of geographical distance has not abolished limits and off-bounds information. On the contrary, it has facilitated mental separation and non-communication to a degree unattainable either in off-line parts of the universe or in the Lebenswelte (the world ‘as lived’) that is shaped by the experience of a world deprived of the on-line sector. Research into the practices deployed by a great majority of Internet users—the DIY ‘comfort zones,’ ‘echo chambers’ or ‘mirror halls,’ easily constructed on-line by the simple expedient of nipping communication in its bud—finds that they are more effective at creating and sustaining separation than even the most refined technologies of ‘gated communities,’ state-installed frontier walls, barbed wire and heavily-armed border-patrols.

The challenge of the on-line version of separation described here acquires yet graver importance from its coincidence with another challenge—arguably the most seminal and hardest to meet in the long history of the human species. That challenge is an unprecedented link in the long chain of expansions in the volume and reach of socio-political integration (and so, in effect, of the segments of humanity included in the idea of ‘us’). It is unprecedented because all previous levels of integration—from the primitive horde to the nation-state—were reached through the use of the same interplay of inclusion and exclusion: integration of ‘us’ coupled with separation from a shared enemy, the resented and assumedly hostile ‘them.’

The next leap in the history of expanding integration will—if indeed it ever happens—have to take place without the clutch of a shared enemy, of new divisions, new separations and new walls needed to accommodate (indeed, to give meaning to) the unity of an expanded ‘us.’ In our globalised world of universal interdependence we are all already cast, as Ulrich Beck insisted, in a ‘cosmopolitan situation’[4]. However, we have not as yet embarked in earnest on the long and rocky road leading to the acquisition of its essential complement: cosmopolitan consciousness, awareness and mindset. And no wonder: those prospective ‘us’ embracing, as they must, for the first time in human history, the whole of humanity, will need to acquire such consciousness without help from our enemy: a shared enemy, legitimising and demanding the solidarity of all of ‘us.’ Is this, with its concomitants such as an end to the grey zone of ambiguity and ambivalence, at all possible? Is it, indeed, conceivable? To become a realistic proposition, this will require no less than a renegotiation and replacement of the thousands-of-years old, deeply ingrained human mode of being-in- the-world.

That incompatibility of means and ends is arguably the gravest, most intractable and potentially the most menacing manifestation of the present-day ‘instrumental crisis,’ justifying the view of the current planetary condition as one of ‘interregnum,’ defined by Antonio Gramsci as a state of affairs in which the inherited and extant instruments of collective action have stopped working properly, while new ones, adequate to the changed conditions, are at best still on the drawing board[5].


  1. Barth, F. (ed.) 1969. Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference. Boston: Little, Brown
  2. Wittgenstein, L. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell
  3. Wittgenstein, L. 1980. Culture and Value. Oxford: Blackwell
  4. Beck, U. 2006. Cosmopolitan Vision (translated by Ciaran Cronin). Cambridge: Polity (originally published in German in 2004 as Der kosmopolitische Blick oder: Krieg ist Frieden. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp)
  5. Gramsci, A. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks (edited and translated by Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith). London: Lawrence and Wishart