sea nerd blog
winter twenty fifteen

us & them

If you divide people between us and them, you are saying there is something that we have that they do not, or vice versa. If this division is something which is made by free choice, such as signing or not signing a contract, then fine. It is, though, easy to make presumptions, such as to presume someone had free choice on signing the contract, so one must verify the presumption. But if it is verified, then there’s nothing wrong with discrimination on the basis of the contract content in a matter to which that contract applies.

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If, however, that something is a matter over which they have no control, such as colour, disability, gender, choice of parents, then you are on dangerous grounds. There is a very good chance you are being bigoted.

If someone lacks an innate ability that prevents them doing something that you can help them do, and they wish to do it, then assisting them doing so is politeness. If someone is blind, and you help them to cross the road, yet you do not help sighted people cross the road, that is fine.

But if someone lacks an innate property, and you treat them differently on a matter that has no connection with that property, then you are wrong. For example, if you refuse to consider the opinion of a blind person when you would consider the same opinion from a sighted person, you are a bigot.

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By inate property, I mean a characteristic that applies to a person over which they have no choice. Deciding whether or not to sign a contract is not an innate property. Being blind is. Deciding not to eat meat is not an innate property (normally; there are some weird allergies about). Choice of parents is.

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To look at it on a very basic level, dividing people into us and them is favouring us over them. This becomes problematic when the factor used to make the division is choice of parents. It is not exactly shocking to discover that, actually, one cannot choose ones parents. Yet so many people decide to favour or otherwise others on the basis of something which came about before they were even born.

This is why such things as race, culture, nationality, and many other divisions, are so poisonous.

And this is why discriminating against people because they are immigrants, e.g. they chose foreigners as parents, is fundamentally bigoted. If you want to treat immigrants differently to natives, you are racist. If you are not ashamed at yourself for being racist because you want to treat immigrants differently from natives, you are disgusting.

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But back to the basic point. The error is not finding the wrong place to create a division between us and them, the error is thinking that some people are them. The error is not the place of the division, the error is the division itself. Whilst you think in terms of us and them, you are incapable of avoiding error. People are people are people; don’t try and create a them whom you consider to be less people than you. Just don’t do it. You cannot avoid descending if you do.

But the whole story gets worse. Imagine you are an anti–immigration nationalist. Imagine you want to do the best you can for your own people. This means you treat your own people better than your treat others. This means treat other people worse than you treat your own people. In other words, you mistreat others simply because you don’t approve of their choice of parent, something over which they have no control.

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Now imagine you start to deny these other people things that you permit your own people. You are drifting into active discrimination. If you decide to enfore the denial, by forcing people to move home, or worse, you are drifting from active discrimination into screwing up peoples’ lives. You are trying to do good, but because you divide people into us and them, you harm others, you actually do evil.

The mistake is to divide people up into us and them. The mistake is to mark some people as them. Do not do it. That division leads you to evil. Do not make the division. Do not divide into us and them. Do not treat immigrants as them. Do not treat anyone as them. Do not do evil. Do not be evil.


I wrote most of this when I’d just finished the harry potter books. It’s taken me much longer to roll out the blog entry.

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I initially asked myself what was the point of writing something on the books, given nearly everyone seems to have read them or watched the films, and almost everyone has said something about them too. But that’s an argument for never saying anything at all, and that’s something I could never do.

Some of the things I’d normally criticise in the books, I can’t, because they’re children’s books. I don’t think it’s plausible a teenager could save the world from a great evil, Similarly, mister baddie is a caricature, at least on the surface. The books centres on a school, a boarding public school, which made me feel somewhat at home, actually. But these are children’s books, and I’m not at all sure I can expect children to have a properly developed sense of human nature. These points cannot be used against the books.

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What I like about the books is that a child can grow up with Harry Potter. They can read one book a year, and watch the character develop as they themselves develop. I’d have loved to have something like these books when I was young, although I’d have found a way to jump ahead later on, as I’m sure many would. Fortunately, they’re complex and rich enough to be revisited.

Another great point about the books is they don’t run away from the difficult things in life. There are the difficulties of boys and girls, there is the death of animals and people. Children always used to be introduced to these hardships in stories, in fairy stories, and I’m glad these books don’t run away from them. The characters are developed, and not just the main characters, and they grow with the books.

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Although the books deal with the fantasy, Rowling has not been lazy, she’s created her own version of the great myths, and given them a new life. For example, the elves and goblins are not the usual trope that so many lazy authors reroll. There’s also some essential elements of the books that I’ve not seen before (although that could simply be my ignorance), such as paintings containing living character portraits, who talk, who wander among their own and other paintings.

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Rowling is on record as saying these books are about death. Death is certainly at the centre of much of the story. Learning how to deal with death is an important part of growing up, and is a lesson many people never learn. As such, the Harry Potter generation will, I hope, be a little more mature than their predecessors.

But I have a problem with the death theme. Rowling introduces, or perhaps reintroduces, a lot of the myths of death, a lot of ideas that are, and have been, central to our culture. It is very important children do know these things, because they’re part of where we come from.

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But I regret that she didn’t also introduce the cold sun perspective, the athiest realisation that there’s no magic really, that death is the end. Mind you, in the context of the story, that would probably have been very very difficult, since much of the story involves life after death, on one form or another, so it’s absence would have run counter to an underlying theme. The problem is the athiest perspective is the only one that holds up to evidence. I guess perhaps learning from Harry Potter, but eventually moving on from the books to whatever post–Potter belief you attain, will be how the Harry Potter generation grow up. After all, they are children’s books, and, after all, Father Christmas.

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There’s a lot of delicious complexity in these books. As the book develops, good characters get put in positions of great difficulty, and have to compromise the things they believe in order to protect the people they love. Rowling doesn’t avoid the darkness of life. So there’s caricature evil, in the form of mister super baddie, but there’s real evil, bad things done for apparently good reasons, bad things done by those who don’t dare see beyond their own spectacle rims. I like that. At the end, the black and white starts to blur to grey. I like that. Bad characters fight for the goodies, good characters fight for the baddies. I like that. The books start to blur to reality’s grey. I like that. There’s a lot of things that might, or might not, be messages, or themes. I like that. I like that adults who were Harry Potter children will argue about the themes (I recently overheard just such a discussion amongst waiters at my local restaurant). I like that these books will give and give for many years.

So, ultimately, I think that these books have become such a part of the conversation of modern life is no bad thing. Those too old to belong to the Harry Potter generation should read them anyway. These books are alive, and those alive should know these books.

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