Us vs. them, me vs. you: How false dichotomies hurt us all

Jordan Javelet
Associate Editor

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve never taken a Peace Studies class. I can’t say that I’ve dedicated as much of my time to understanding or talking about conflict as many of my classmates at this college have. It is very difficult to offend me, and I love edgy comedy and brutal satire. I believe that people can and should say what they want (to an extent), and I believe that we can all disagree and still live in harmony.
Recently, however, I’ve realized that I repeatedly fall silent when something I believe in is challenged by one of my peers, even if it is challenged inadvertently. I do not speak my mind. I give up before I even attempt to be vulnerable and speak from my experience. I am a part of a problem that I believe is pervasive on this campus, and so I am now summoning up the courage to speak my mind.
This article was inspired by the email about the potential changes to traffic policies and cameras on campus, but that is not its main focus. I attended the Town Hall Meeting about the subject and, again, fell silent in the face of explanations offered by our caring and professional administration, as did most other students in the room. As I listened to the explanations,  however, I realized that the changes to the Loop Road are designed so we can be (perhaps) safer and more secure than we are now, but at the expense of our freedom. This is a sentiment that I see playing out at Goucher all the time.
I do not speak here because I am afraid—afraid I will say something wrong, afraid my words will be interpreted in a way that I did not mean, afraid that I will hurt someone, afraid that someone will hurt me. I am afraid because I feel myself being positioned against everyone else on this campus. I do not assume positive intent, and I believe that others do not assume my positive intent. I do not think in terms of community—I think in the terms “us” versus “them,” “me” versus “you,” “safety” versus “freedom.”
Thinking in these false dichotomies is the most insidious poison because it transforms everything into a battle. I do not want to think of myself as separate from my classmates. I do not want to think of myself as attacking them with my very existence, and I don’t want to feel that they are attacking me with theirs.
There is a difference between being a united community because we all agree about everything and being a united community because we know that we don’t need to agree about everything to be kind and respectful to each other. Just because one person has had one experience of life does not make another person’s experience invalid. One person’s identity does not cancel out another’s. We are all here as individuals, and we must embrace our freedom to share our experiences, to speak our minds—to drive both ways on the Loop Road—with the immense responsibility that comes along with that freedom. We should not encourage the mentality that security depends on insulation and silence. In fact, security is entirely dependent on the responsible and honorable use of exposure and discourse. We must throw off the chains of safety that are trying to imprison us and accept that while the freedom to expand our minds and our beliefs can sometimes cause pain, this pain is the necessary way—the only way—towards the kind of deep understanding that will allow true safety to flourish.
There has been a great deal of controversy on this campus recently, and while I have not been directly involved in any of it, I have watched my friends on both sides be hurt. Many have said that what has happened is negative and reveals the problems on Goucher’s campus; I think the opposite. I think that if we were all willing to realize that everyone is trying to achieve the same thing—saying “Hear me. See me. Understand my identity”—then maybe everyone would recognize that the dialogues we are starting, no matter how painful, are the only way forward.
In a controversial article published in the September issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt make a case for free speech that, while occasionally exaggerated, makes many good points. They speak of the power of words–which, I will not deny, is immense. However, as Lukianoff and Haidt point out, “When speech comes to be seen as a form of violence, vindictive protectiveness can justify a hostile, and perhaps even violent, response.”
I would not say that there are not situations in which speech can be violent; however, in the discourse of day-to-day life, treating every topic that could offend someone as violent destroys any progress that we can make. Taking away the discourse promotes igonorance, and ignorance does not promote safety. Ignorance only promotes more fear of being offended, more fear of offending someone else and more discomfort with the subjects that we must be tackling if we are to progress as a society. How can we move forward if we will not speak about the most problematic aspects of our society? How can we move forward if we will not listen to those who would speak of these topics?
It is true that there may be pain ahead, but I will welcome this pain. That’s why I’m writing this article. For too long, I’ve been unwilling to speak up, and I’ve been unwilling to really listen to others, because I’ve been afraid. But not anymore. I may get attacked for writing this—go ahead: attack me. I will be honored that you are willing to share your point of view with me, and I hope you will listen to mine as well.
Students of Goucher, we are constantly operating from an “us” versus “them,” “me” versus “you” mentality of opposition and invalidation. But we must recognize that this kind of dichotomous thinking is detrimental to us all. We are trying to get along. We are trying, but we are not trying hard enough. It is time to recognize that standing together does not mean agreeing with everything to the point that we are afraid to disagree.
It is time to stand and be brave. Silencing the voices that make up our college community serves no one. So from now on, I am going to speak.
And, equally importantly, I am going to listen.


Categories: Opinion, Uncategorized


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