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Why Buddhists Can Stop Worrying and Learn to Love “Us vs. Them Thinking”

Illustration of protestors confronting police dressed in riot gear

An often-rehearsed refrain in Buddhist and contemplative communities is that we need to overcome “Us vs. Them thinking” (or what I’ll abbreviate as UVTT). This intention makes perfect sense. Dualistic thought informs many of the vexing otherings that shape our social worlds, otherings along the axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, species, ability (the sad string goes on and on). Inasmuch as UVTT contributes to systems of domination, then it should be transformed.

But this is not the most common argument I hear from fellow Buddhists and contemplatives. Instead the most regular critique of UVTT is directed towards activists and toward social movements themselves. The argument runs like this: Activists are in danger of replicating dualistic and oppositional thought in the way they conceive of and confront their adversaries. I recently spoke with Dawn Haney from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), an organization on the leading edge of engaged Buddhism. She reported how during Occupy Wall Street, the BPF heard from a number of Buddhists worried about the language of the 99% vs. the 1%. “What about the 100%?” many Buddhists asked.

There is no pure “Us,” perfectly free from the ills we criticize. Even as a Buddhist, my ego regularly rears itself, causing suffering for myself and others. And even as an activist committed to social justice, dominative social scripts can still course through my organism, seeking the light of day. The ease with which ego and the hunger for control can mount guerilla campaigns against our best intentions is good reason to work with ourselves, even as we work towards social justice. But none of this militates towards the termination of Us vs. Them thinking. Indeed to call for an end to Us vs. Them thinking is itself a form of UVTT: it creates another “Them,” apparently stuck in the dung-heap of dualism.

Until enlightened society is achieved and non-conceptual mind is the universal dancing ground of all humanity, then UVTT is going to exist. Even more importantly, Us vs. Them thinking is crucial to processes of political change. To deny its power is to court political irrelevance. Even worse, by not taking clear sides in struggles for climate justice, racial justice, gender justice, and economic justice, then contemplatives easily become de facto supporters of the status quo. Our struggle should not be against UVTT in general, but instead against unskillful deployments of oppositional thinking. Below are four thought-tools, designed to help discern forms of oppositional thinking that serve the cause of justice.

Four Thought-Tools

1) The two truths. During my conversation with Dawn from BPF I asked her how she relates to Buddhist discomfort with oppositional thinking. For her, the insistence upon two simultaneously existing dimensions of reality (absolute and relative), integral to Buddhist philosophy, can help ease worries about political divisiveness among Buddhists. Absolute reality names the ultimate interconnection between all beings and things. Relative reality helps name the different ways that existence manifests (rock, tree, human, along with the granular distinctions within each of these categories). Many of these differences are not politically salient. But humans have a knack for distributing unjust advantages based on existing or created differences (race, class, gender, sexuality). These injustices are real but relative; they exist simultaneously with the absolute or ultimate interconnection of all beings. The two truths can be helpfully applied to politics. I can recognize my absolute enmeshment with my adversaries; I can feel compassion for their suffering, even as I seek to undo their relative privilege. In other words, the two truths allow for the deployment of UVTT, while also holding onto the absolute humanity of our adversaries. Jumping straight to our absolute humanity (“What about the 100%?” “All Lives Matter!”), without acknowledging the relative and historical divisions that have been imposed between us, is an example of what Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams calls “premature transcendence.”

2) The difference between humans and systems. Racists are not white supremacy. The latter should be ruthlessly expunged from the earth. The former are deluded and often vicious, but they hold within them a tender and aching human heart. Recognizing our absolute human connection to individuals who perpetuate systemic injustices does not mean we need to love them or forgive them. But it does mean we can find compassion for their ignorance in our hearts, even as we wrathfully rail against the dominative systems they support. While these systems and structures are crafted by humans, they themselves are heartless. They have no capacity for compassion; we do not debase ourselves by seeking their destruction. The political end game is to uproot dominative systems, while staying rooted to the absolute humanity of oppressors and enablers. Us vs. Them thinking done right stays focused on the systems that divide us, that repress the possibility for universal flourishing.

3) Unskillful UVTT is dominative and essentialist. Us vs. Them thinking is dominative when it targets marginalized groups, or seeks to marginalize a non-dominative group (as will be discussed below, marginalizing dominative groups can help the cause of justice). The dominative effects of unskillful UVTT are amplified when UVTT is also essentialist, when it posits permanent and essential differences between groups (like when Larry Summers, then President of Harvard University, theorized that women are biologically inferior to men in the fields math and science). Essentialism denies the absolute interconnection between beings, dampens the potential for universal flourishing, and interrupts our capacity to feel compassion and solidarity across difference.

4) Skillful UVTT is generative and contingent. Us vs. Them thinking is generative when it creates possibilities for universal flourishing. Targeting the 1% and expropriating their wealth will cause them great pain. But it will also create the conditions for social betterment. Imagine what can be accomplished with the concentrated wealth of the billionaires club: universal day care, universal basic incomes, free university, free mass transit, and green spaces abound. The post-billionaires can also benefit from this dawn of equity and the collective happiness and creativity it enables. But UVTT can only be truly generative if it is also contingent (or anti-essentialist)—if it recognizes the impermanence of the othering it produces. We can rail against the 1% and the capitalist system that enables their dominance, while also recognizing our absolute interconnection with the new aristocrats. While it is currently obscured, this absolute connectivity can be made manifest in the here-and-now through social policy that promotes universal flourishing.

How divisiveness can unify: The case of fossil fuel divestment

Blanket opposition to Us vs. Them thinking is a ticket to political irrelevance, and worse, complicity. The fossil fuel divestment movement exemplifies the benefits of UVTT. According to journalist Naomi Klein: “No tactic in the climate wars has resonated more powerfully.”  In three short years the movement has succeeded in convincing over 800 investors to divest over $50 billion from fossil fuel companies. This unfathomably large number is dwarfed in comparison to the $4.88 trillion valuation of the world’s publicly traded fossil fuel firms (a mere 1%). But the fact that culturally powerful institutions like Stanford University, The World Council of Churches, and the Rockefeller Foundation have all divested, is beginning to marginalize the industry and chip away at the political deadlock on climate change.

Why has the movement been so successful? Why has it resonated with the public in ways that previous climate mitigation efforts have not? Key to the movement’s popular traction has been the location of a climate change foe: the fossil fuel industry. In the Global North we all consume fossil fuels; we all contribute to climate change. But the vast majority of us do not fund climate denial, nor do we obstruct climate legislation. Most importantly, we do not profit fabulously from an industry that threatens planetary liveability. As Bill McKibben wrote in his Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, which went viral and helped kick-start the movement: “we have met the enemy and they is Shell.”

Strong emotions such as anger, hope, and solidarity facilitate individual actions that make up the collective work of social movements. UVTT can provide the emotional intensity, the directed anger (Them!) and felt solidarity (Us!), needed to spark a social movement. To forego UVTT when it comes to climate change is a dangerous choice; it misses the primary culprits, and it saps the emotional energy needed to power a world historical movement.

Recently Steve Douglas, A VP for tar sands giant Suncor, spoke at the University of Victoria where I work. He told the audience that fossil fuel divestment is too divisive. We can all work together, Douglas insisted; we can form the equivalent of an aerodynamic cycling formation and ride a slipstream to a carbon-lite future. This is an attractive prospect. Unfortunately it is delusional. Fossil fuel companies like Suncor are fossil fuel companies; their business model necessitates the extraction and burning of carbon-intensive fuel sources that we need to keep in the ground. According to Suncor’s 2013 annual report, “the absolute GHG emissions of our company will continue to rise as we pursue a prudent and planned growth strategy.” Intensive lobbying efforts will be integral to Suncor’s plans for growth, since they contradict the biophysical requirements for climatic stability. Steve Douglas suffers like all humans, and I feel compassion for him. But his company is currently programmed to endanger a multitude of species I care deeply about (especially my own). Steve can stay, but Suncor has to go.

UVTT united!

By not confronting companies like Suncor, by not making them a them, by trying to get along, we become complicit with their dangerous self-seeking. It is not hyperbole to note that the livability of our planet depends on our willingness to challenge those who systematically suppress possibilities for universal flourishing. When it is generative and contingent, Us vs. Them thinking serves our absolute interconnectivity; it is non-duality at work. Fellow Buddhists and contemplatives, may we embrace UVTT as a fierce and rich form of compassion. Our collective liberation depends on it.

Hearty thank yous to Kai Beavers, Gabriel Dayley, Dawn Haney, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Alexis Shotwell, and Trudi Lynn Smith for generously commenting on this post. All mishaps, however, are my own.

James K. Rowe, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Trained as a political scientist, his research and teaching areas are political ecology, critical theory, social movement history, and political economy. James’ work is especially focused on the causes, effects, and redress of social and ecological injustice.

Illustration by Alicia Brown

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