How do soldiers prepare to kill fellow humans who happen to wear the uniform of an opposing force? By making them sub-human and therefore worthy of death. In fact, all military and paramilitary training is designed to help human recruits overcome the natural reticence we all have to take another human life, and to live with the regret that normal, healthy humans experience when we do kill. In another example, we may wonder how whites in America were able to enslave and mistreat their darker-skinned brethren. The answer is the same: by designating them as only partially human (three-fifths human, to be exact, a little more than half). How did Nazi officers kill Jewish babies in front of their mothers and then go home to play with their own children without a second thought? Because Jews were portrayed as being less than human and therefore in a completely separate category as the Aryan race. How do serial killers torture and kill their victims? By seeing them as objects, not people. Do you remember the scene in Silence of the Lambs where the senator’s daughter tries to tell the crazed killer her name so that he might see her as human? Didn’t work, of course. He loved his dog a lot more than the “thing” in the pit.
And there are many other examples of this very ugly, very human phenomenon. The rationale behind it must be that we are somehow biologically hardwired to recognize another of our kind and to see ourselves in them so that we are naturally reluctant to kill or damage them in any way because it feels like hurting ourselves. Therefore, if we want or need to behave badly, we must first rewire our brains so that we do not recognize ourselves in the “other” so that we can destroy with impunity.
And lest we think that this activity is limited to others who take this tendency to the extreme, let me assure you that we are all alike in this way. It is human nature to decide between two options: generally, either we identify in or we identify out. So, for example, when we audition to join a new group, be it professional, personal, or religious, we must first decide—or have it decided for us—whether we are a good fit. If we are already in the group, it is up to us to determine whether the candidate is “one of us.”
Some groups are determined by like-mindedness or common benefit, such as special interest groups, hobby groups, or religious and political affiliations. Some groups are determined by function or purpose, like labor unions or industry associations. Some groups are purely social, and exist mostly to distinguish between “us” and “them.” The Greek system (sororities and fraternities) and exclusive country clubs come to mind in this category. And, of course, not all groups adopt an exclusionary clause—I’m sure there are some groups that genuinely embrace a live and let live approach, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule.
We form groups to define ourselves, to provide a label that can tell us how to act and even how to think. It is so much easier to color within the lines if we know where they are. We also seek to belong to groups that represent something bigger than we are so that we can remind ourselves that there is more out there than just us. It’s lonely as a lone wolf. We want to be part of a pack. We are hardwired to this too.
Which would be just fine if we didn’t need to take that tendency a step further and promote our own affiliations at the expense of others. Because while it is true that we can all stand taller on the backs of those who don’t belong, such positioning creates a shaky foundation for growth and authentic expression. And when we take it to the next level and demonize the other, as The Sanctum does to the girl Madhuri Blaylock’s book, the results can lead as far as death and destruction, as it does in this story. But Ms. Blaylock also shows us hope that at least some of us can overcome our tendency to exercise the exclusivity clause, and replace it, instead, with a more inclusive approach. I believe that when we overcome our more reflexive responses, and engage the more reflective aspects of our consciousness, we begin to walk the road of authenticity, which, as you know, is one of my primary goals in life.
We don’t need to fear the other. We certainly don’t need to damage or destroy in our fear. We can take a page out of Madhuri Blaylock’s book and choose to expand our group, to change our self-definition to include the other. Because, in truth, we are the other.