In Us and Them David Berreby tells the story of a band of WWII British commandos who have captured a senior German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe.
The Brits are moving stealthily around a Greek island, watching their prisoner and avoiding discovery by German forces. Imagine the state of tension between captors and captive, each walking a knife edge of death and emnity.
One morning, Kreipe witnesses dawn breaking over a mountain and is reminded of an ode by Horace and starts reciting it. One of the British commandos, Major Fermer, recognises the verse and surprises Kreipe by taking up the Latin and completing the poem. Here’s how Berreby continues the tale:
“Ach, so, Herr Major,” Kreipe says, and for some time the two men look silently at the peak. “It was very strange,” Fermor wrote years later. “As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
I find that a remarkable story and it’s just one of the many pleasures of Berreby’s book.
Here’s the deeper point that the author makes about our very human habit of stereoptyping: that we think we’re doing it based on information (accurate or not) about the person, but actually that’s not how our mental processes really work.
We think the human-kind code is based on facts about people. Instead, it’s based on facts about how we relate to those people at the moment we categorize them – what we want, or expect, or fear from them. Mental codes interpret human kinds as if they were things that have dimensions and persist through time. But the information that makes the codes work is not about things. It’s about actions – what we’re doing and planning to do as they relate to what other people are doing.
His work presents a powerful challenge to notions of original sin, tendencies to see people as “them” and essentially bad (or “us” and essentially good) and unchanging. He does this with eloquence as well as scientific precision, as in this further reflection on events on that Greek island in 1944:
A conscious mind makes decisions and swears oaths to treat an enemy as an enemy, always. But consciousness is a tight, bright spotlight running over a restless ocean of mind. Elsewhere in that ever-changing sea of perception and feeling, things change without conscious intent. All that’s required is a message, set in human-kind code, touching the human-kind decoder. You – the you who thinks you know yourself – need not be involved. And so one dawn sixty years ago a soldier found that the code dividing the world into Horations and non-Horations mattered more, for that moment, than the one dividing armies.
Berreby cites much research to show the massive consequences for our well-being of believing we’re “us” or “them”, with their many linked ideas of status. He matches this with insights into how complex are the signals that give rise to these notions.
Reading his work reminds me of the preciousness of a sense of belonging. And I am forced to draw breath at the careless ease with which it’s possible to either violate it, or to create it – either for myself or for those around me.
(I am also reminded of the Buddhist instruction to go into the world as if your every action will have an impact upon it, whilst laughing kindly at your grandiosity in thinking so.)