Watch for this phrase in your social media feeds: “these people.” These people want America overrun by immigrants. These people don’t care about the sick and the poor. These people forgot what happened on 9/11. These people are racists. These people are preaching a false gospel. These people believe the state will solve everything. These people are taking what is rightfully yours.
If you vote for me, we will put these people in their place.
It’s a word pair I’m trying to expunge from my own vocabulary in an effort to emphasize, to myself at least, and perhaps naively, and certainly imperfectly, what we have in common in the human project and, in my small corner of it, the academy.
When I say or write “these people,” I’m emphasizing the difference and sheer wrongness of the out-group. Instead of seeking to identify and work through differences—to remove the planks from my own eye so I can see more clearly to help others remove the specks from theirs—by referring to these people I’m signaling and strengthening my affiliation with Us as against Them. I’m saying, in other words, that I’m not like these people who say and do and believe awful things. It’s a way of showing that I’m one of the good guys.
It’s tempting to say that the problem with talk of these people is dehumanizing, but it isn’t. On the September 17, 2018 episode of EconTalk, host Russ Roberts had a rather unsetting conversation with psychologist Paul Bloom. Cruelty, Bloom argues, doesn’t come from dehumanization or a failure to recognize others’ humanity but from a desire to see others suffer as humans, because of their humanity—or at least what we see as their flawed representation of it. To put it in spiritual terms, we aren’t cruel to one another because we don’t recognize one another as bearers of Imago Dei, the image of God. If Bloom’s view is correct, we do recognize others as bearers of the image of God, but we hate them for it.
Phrases like these people lend themselves to exaggeration and hyperbole that drown out conversation and communication. When everyone is a socialist, or when everyone is worse than Hitler, no one is.
And no, I’m not yearning for some mythical bygone era of “civility” that never existed. I’ve read enough old newspapers and to know such an era never existed. Rather, I’m trying—trite as it may seem—to take a small step toward making things just a bit better by guarding vigilantly against the temptation to indulge my worst instincts. With any luck, the world will be a marginally better place as a result.