Suckstorff: My problem with “us vs. them”

Hana Suckstorff

I’ve done a fair amount of ranting with this column, and while I’ve tried to keep it controlled, well-measured, and substantive, I’m tired of writing it (and you may be tired of reading it). Instead of offering you a polemic, I’d like to leave you with a meditation on a subject about which I have many thoughts but few easy answers.

Over the summer I attended a protest in support of Hyatt Regency workers, who had been working without a contract for a year. As I watched hotel workers march down the center of the street and resolutely block traffic, I couldn’t help but admire the courage it took for them to risk arrest and losing their job in order to make a bold statement to their obstinate employers.

Yet I felt uncomfortable being there. Our angry chants were directed at the Pritzker family, the outrageously wealthy owners of the Hyatt corporation who have had a hand in almost everything large and famous in Chicago (such as University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park). I know from my work in non-profit circles that the Pritzkers have also done incredible philanthropic work with their money. They’ve funded elementary schools, a children’s zoo at the Lincoln Park Zoo and an annual architecture prize, among other things. Yet our protest chants erased all of that charitable activity and reduced the Pritzkers to archetypal rich villains.

While I disagreed with the Pritzkers’ handling of this particular issue, I felt uneasy demonizing people who had contributed more to civic welfare than I ever had. Our protests relied on an “us vs. them” model that didn’t address the complexity of the situation.

For me, that kind of black-and-white model is frequently just too simplistic to be satisfying. It implies that those who disagree with you are both uniformly wrong and morally inferior, and that reductio ad absurdum seems plainly unfair to opponents who may have valid points, even if you disagree with them.

The “us vs. them” paradigm seems inappropriate in many cases. I know people who find the Living Wage Campaign’s rhetoric condescending and judgmental toward those who don’t support the cause, despite the fact that legitimate questions about the economics behind the proposal remain unanswered. Even social issues which seem clear-cut in hindsight, like the civil rights’ movement’s achievements in the 1960s, don’t properly fit a simplistic “us vs. them” model that demonizes “them.” One of my professors once described meeting his roommate’s Southern family who, despite their deep-seeded racism, were some of the friendliest people he’d ever met. The “us vs. them” dichotomy doesn’t account for the possibility that “they,” despite reprehensible or contestable perspectives, may still be good people or have legitimate points of view. That possibility holds true for a variety of social issues such as gay rights, environmentalism and reproductive rights for which we may think our positions are so airtight as to be indisputable.

And yet, does it hold true for all of them, and to what extent? For all that my professor’s roommate’s family may have been hospitable, welcoming individuals, most of us don’t consider prejudice of any kind a valid ground on which to base laws or policies. Can we condemn the viewpoint without reviling the people who hold it? Or are the two inherently inseparable? In other words, is the “us vs. them” model ever apt? Are any social issues ever that simple?

I understand why social activists might resort to this paradigm. Defining yourself in opposition to the “other” is a potent tool for mobilizing a movement, one that is all the more effective when that “other” is a concrete group of people and not an abstract idea. Nuance in one’s position frequently seems to eviscerate rather than strengthen it. Can we passionately advocate clear-cut positions without demonizing the other side? And are there times when, in fact, we should do both?

I’d love to hear what you have to say, even if you disagree with my thoughts. And I promise I won’t vilify you.

Hana Suckstorff is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]