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Us Plus Them

Us Plus ThemSenior Lecturer Todd Pittinsky’s research focuses on the problems of diverse communities, and their often untapped potential for positive intergroup relations. Many problems faced by communities can be greatly reduced or even avoided, he argues, if differences are recognized and celebrated. Here, he discusses his new book, Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference, and how the costly us-versus-them mindset, should be abandoned by communities and organizations alike.

What do you mean by “us plus them”? “Us plus them” is when you have people from different groups and they’re well aware of their differences but they find the differences interesting, comfortable, or admirable, so these two groups are actually glad to be together. That opens up huge new possibilities for human society. I thought it was well worth a book to bring it to people’s attention.

What is “allophilia” and where is it found? Allophilia is the positive reaction to difference. It’s why many people love to travel or watch certain cable channels or host foreign exchange students — they like to encounter difference. But almost no one pays any attention to this important aspect of us-and-them relations. In fact, there wasn’t even a word for it, so we coined the term “allophilia.” Almost all discussion of diversity emphasizes prejudice and hate, but research has found that, even in Northern Ireland at the peak of sectarian division; even in Israel, where people think of strained relations among Jewish and Arab citizens — negative reaction to difference isn’t the whole story. There’s allophilia there, too.

Your book argues that science should step up and play its proper role in us-and-them relations. Science has some very important things to say about “getting along” and would have a lot more to say if social scientists didn’t think — mistakenly — that it wasn’t their job. Science has to be values-free in the sense that one’s values cannot justify ignoring or distorting the evidence. But there is every reason for values to guide what it is that scientists choose to investigate. It is absolutely science’s job to say, “We’re going to study this topic — with scientific rigor — because knowing more about it would help people live better lives. Besides, the physical and biological sciences often focus on what could be and this typically starts with a “what if” question: “What if there was a kind of wheat that was disease-resistant?” “What if there was a kind of concrete strong enough to withstand an earthquake?” So why not, in the social sciences, ask, “What if two ethnic groups actually wanted to share a country together, not just out of political necessity or economic convenience but because members of each group liked being with members of the other group?”  “Under what conditions would it be possible? Exactly what attitudes would people have?” But as I said, that’s mistakenly considered too unscientific.

You describe a “hate science” and “hate industry” that have come to dominate the public discourse on us-and-them relations.  What do you mean by that? If you are in academia and you want to do research on us-and-them relations, or want to teach about that, many things will push you in the direction of negative us-and-them relations. That’s what your textbooks will discuss; that’s what the research funding sources will fund; that’s what the journals publish; that’s what the academic conferences are about. In policy, if you look at the legislation passed, the agencies created, it’s overwhelmingly about hate or prejudice and how to fight them, almost never about allophilia and how to enhance it. None of this is deliberately malevolent, but it’s really dangerously unbalanced. We’re not getting the scientific knowledge and the knowledge-based policies and leadership we need to live well together in this increasingly multicultural world.

You talk about a vicious cycle which involves the media’s “appetite for atrocity.” What is that cycle and how can we break it? There is a widespread but false assumption that us-against-them hostility is an inevitable part of human nature. The media’s focus on conflict and crime keeps reinforcing that false idea. People think: Of course hostility between groups is inevitable. All you have to do is listen to the news every day and it’s obvious. They don’t realize how one-sided that news is. Policymakers and leaders aren’t immune to this; they make the same assumption and that shapes the way our leaders lead, which in turn reinforces how we think.

The chapter on empathy introduces the concept of an “empathy error.”
Empathy can do some good in counteracting existing prejudice, but it doesn’t go any farther than that; it doesn’t help build allophilia. There is another phenomenon, “empathic joy” or “symhedonia” — feeling good on account of someone’s good fortune — and the tiny bit of research that’s been done on it suggests that it might be helpful in fostering allophilia. But it doesn’t even have a name in ordinary English and it has gotten almost zero attention. It’s that imbalance that I call “the empathy error.” This goes back to the idea that we have a fundamentally imbalanced understanding of the human response to difference. Obviously, conflict and prejudice and hatred are real and the more we know about them, the better. But it’s like knowing more and more about sick patients while having no interest in healthy people and what makes and keeps them healthy. If you’ve got a plot full of weeds and you want a garden, of course you have to pull up the weeds. But that’s not enough. You also have to plant the flowers and then you have to take care of them. If you’re poor and in debt, of course you need to cut your spending. But that’s not enough. You also have to increase your income. And those are two different activities. In the same way, if you are leading a group — say, a company or a town — that combines different groups that are at odds, you have to try to reduce or eliminate that hostility and mistrust. But that’s not enough. You also need to lead people to develop positive attitudes about whichever group is the “other” to them. That’s a very different activity and most leaders don’t even realize such positive attitudes exist, never mind knowing how to create and enhance them. We’re missing out on something that could be much more helpful than what we’ve been doing so far.

What do you hope readers most take away from this book? Possibilities! Many people are interested in those who are different. They are quite comfortable with difference. This response to difference is just as natural as disliking or fearing it. What if this positive aspect of human nature got the spotlight? What if science went all out to understand how it flourishes? What if ordinary leaders at all levels — not just the occasional Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King — considered it their job to nurture it and build on it because social science research had generated practical knowledge about how to do it?