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Us and Them: Relating to Challenging Others

Patterns in the shadow dance between good and evil (Part #1)

Taxonomies of dramatic situations
Systematic elaboration of binary coding
Periodic table of relationships between "us" and "them"?
Possible mapping of "us-and-them" relationships
Possibility of an "eightfold way"?
Cognitive or memetic "vitamins"?
Distinguishing patterns in strategic games between "us" and "them"
Mining global cultures for narrative wisdom
Dancing with a shadowy other
Martial arts, catastrophe and metaphorical geometry

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Written on the occasion of the requirement by the International Association of Athletics Federations for a gender test of many weeks, to determine whether the record breaking athlete Caster Semenya was female or male -- or possibly both, or neither, thereby creating a major issue for passport and other official identification.

Curiously there is a prevailing primitive sense that those most central to the dysfunctional dynamics of the world can be distinguished in terms of binary logic as "us" and "them". "Us" are necessarily the "good guys" acting appropriately, whether the criterion is economic growth, profitability, sustainability, advance of knowledge, peace-keeping, democratic values, spiritual insight, etc. "Them" are necessarily the "bad guys" frustrating and undermining such worthy initiatives. This logic most explicitly drove US foreign policy in the formation of the Coalition of the Willing in response to 9/11.

The logic continues to be fundamental to such ongoing conflicts as: Israel-Palestine, developers-conservationists, "clashes of civilization" (Afghanistan, etc), "axis of evil" (North Korea, etc), interfaith discourse by which "right" and "wrong" are defined to isolate the "unbelievers" (Catholicism and others, Judaism and others, Islam and others, etc). The phenomenon is evident in the "two culture" conflict between science and the humanities -- in which, for example, the latter may be simply framed as misguided or deluded by the former. It is as fundamental to the relation between governmental and nongovernmental bodies, as it is to that between profit-making and nonprofit-making bodies. It is inherent in the impoverished relationship between "mainstream" and "alternative" worldviews, or between the formal and the informal (ie "black") economies (Interacting Fruitfully with Un-Civil Society the dilemma for non-civil society organizations, 1996).

It is also reflected in male-female relationships, especially when any discrimination is associated with such conflicts (Afghanistan and the burkha, etc). It is obviously fundamental to relationships based on colour and typically defined in binary terms (as under the apartheid regime). Ironically "colour" is used to distinguish the political extremes of right and left between which similar dynamics prevail. In each case there is little question who are the "good guys" and who are the "bad guys" -- depending on the group with which the observer is identified, especially when detachment is not an option, as with the Coalition of the Willing (You are either with us or against us) -- and the declaration to that effect by Hillary Clinton (2001), currently US Secretary of State..

In endeavouring to respond to such conflicts, the main strategy envisaged is to convert the "bad guys" into acquiring the values and behaviours of the "good guys". In terms of any negotiation, this is the classical Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (1981). The "good guys" are those "in agreement", who "sing from the same hymn sheet"; the "bad guys" are "off programme". Again the difficulty is that each "side" is engaged in precisely that strategy by means that may be most questionable to the other in seeking to increase their negotiating power and winning the "battle for hearts and minds". This is exemplified by the use of inhumane weaponry and suicide bombing in the Iraq-Afghanistan arena -- exacerbated by "enhanced interrogation".

The other side is readily labelled as fundamentally, if not diabolically, "evil" -- with a degree of implication as to the (ev)angelic nature of those opposing its initiatives. There is no question of any degree of significance or legitimacy to the views of the other. All would in fact be wonderful if the other could be assimilated or, if necessary, eliminated.

Any implication that there is a degree of moral equivalence is itself seen as verging on treachery, betrayal and subversion, as argued prior to "Abu Ghraib" by Jeane Kirkpatrick (The Myth of Moral Equivalence, 1986) -- later US Ambassador to the UN. However such an understanding of "equivalence" itself assumes a binary logic in which the scales of justice are as two-dimensional as conventionally depicted. Where the condition involves multiple dimensions, any measurement of equivalence becomes more subtle and nuanced -- as notably recognized in understandings of "poetic justice".

And yet, as is to be seen at the time of writing, the question has emerged as to the possibility of dialogue with the Taliban -- even the possibility that they might be brought into a viable government in Afghanistan. This is an instance in which the completely negative framing is nuanced, possibly by a dubious logic of convenience: "talking with the good Taliban", etc. Essentially missing from any such "back channel" pragmatism (Track II diplomacy), whether cynical or not, is a framework within which the values of the other can in any way be seen to be respected. This is particularly striking when a "primitive" force, readily recognized as the antithesis of "universal" values, has remained essentially unconquered despite the application of historically unprecedented military resources over nearly a decade.

The concern in what follows is how it might be possible to highlight a pattern of intermediary conditions between the unquestionably absolute good of "us" and the unquestionably absolute evil of "them". An inspiration for such a pursuit might be Pogo's classic: we have met the enemy and he is us. However the challenge is to render explicit what might otherwise be encompassed and conflated within the experiential mystery of otherness as explored by Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1923) and others ("Human Intercourse": "Intercourse with Nature" and "Intercourse with the Other", 2007). Clearly such laudable insights have not yet been adequate to the challenge -- notably in the Middle East.

As noted by Noam Chomsky (Chomsky: What America's 'Crisis' Means to the Rest of the World, Boston Review. 10 September 2009):

There is too much nuance and variety to make such sharp distinctions as theirs-and-ours, them-and-us. And neither I nor anyone can presume to speak for 'us.'

Three potentially interrelated approaches of potentially requisite complexity are tentatively explored below: taxonomies of dramatic situations, systematic elaboration of binary coding, and the mathematics of periodicity as evident in the Periodic Table.

and the mathematics of periodicity as evident in the Periodic Table.

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