The Chronicle Review

Us vs. Them: Good News From the Ancients!

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

January 23, 2011

"Us against them" seems a staple of human psychology as unsinkable as "That's mine!" for a 3-year-old or "I wish they'd quiet down" for a senior citizen surrounded by teenagers.

After the Tucson shootings this month, it took multiple American forms: Republican vs. Democrat, gun-control advocate vs. Second Amendment solutioner, normal person vs. nut case, blood-libel accuser vs. blood-libel defendant, our pundit vs. your pundit.

Looking through a recent New York Times, you couldn't help thinking that the notion merits a separate daily section to organize stories efficiently: North Korean vs. South Korean, North Ivorian vs. South Ivorian (those hard geographical divisions help), e-book reader vs. traditional book lover, New York Giant vs. Dallas Cowboy, boomer vs. Gen X'er, man vs. woman.

Are we just boringly binary? And why, as both Rodney King and distinguished science writer David Berreby asked, for different reasons, can't we all get along?

Back in 2005, Berreby tried to open our eyes on the subject with his noncontentiously titled Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind (Little, Brown and Co.). We can't help being tribal thinkers, Berreby explained, because organizing other humans into kinds is "an absolute requirement for being human." It is, he wrote, "the mind's guide for understanding anyone we do not know personally, for seeing our place in the human world, and for judging our actions." There is "apparently no people known to history or anthropology that lacks a distinction between 'us' and 'others,' " and particularly others who don't rise to our level.

Our categories for humans, Berreby elaborated, "serve so many different needs, there is no single recipe for making one." Categories for other people "can't be understood objectively." We fashion them in classic pragmatic style to suit our purposes in solving problems, particularly that of generalizing about people we know by only a feature or two. We make these categories—often out of strong emotional need. We don't discover them. American suburbanites need "soccer moms," Southern kids need "Nascar dads," Yemenites need neither.

Sometimes we lose control over our categories. Nineteenth-century linguists applied a Sanskrit word to a family of ancient languages, Berreby reminded us, but the Nazis turned "Aryan" into "a life-and-death human kind" different and better than German Jews. These days, we see the expansion of "red" and "blue" from shorthand tags for states in regard to voting patterns to fundamental categorizations of people. History and science also help us add to what Berreby called the "heap of canceled kinds"—the "phlegmatic" and "nervous" types that formed two separate 19th-century classes for doctors, the "Type-A personality" seen as a scientific category in the 1980s, the cagots of France and the paekchong of Korea, who have long since melted into their national groups, the "races" slowly being undermined by DNA analysis.

"The issue," Berreby observed, "is not what human kinds are in the world, but what they are in the mind—not how we tell Tamils and Seventh-day Adventists and fans of Manchester United from their fellow human beings, but why we want to."

True enough. The problem remains that this habit of hostility to the "Other" seems inescapable, even if it's not hard-wired into us. We've been talking like Tarzan since the ancient Greeks. Me Athenian, you barbarian. Me Roman, you Carthaginian loser. Me Greek, you dumb Egyptian animal worshiper. Me better, you worse.

Again, as with Berreby's study, a book can help us if not save us—a small tool to pry the fetishisms of "Us vs. Them" from our minds.

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, by Erich S. Gruen, out this month from Princeton University Press, like all excellent scholarship massages the mind in useful new directions. Gruen, a Berkeley professor emeritus of history and classics, wields his command of ancient sources to shake a widely shared historical belief—that ancient Greeks and Romans exuded condescension and hostility toward what European intellectuals call the "Other." For those Greeks and Romans, that largely meant peoples such as the Persians, Egyptians, and Jews. Even if Gruen doesn't wholly convince on every ground that Greeks and Romans operated like Obamas in togas, regularly reaching out to potential enemies, his careful readings of Aeschylus, Herodotus, Tacitus, and others introduce us to a kinder, gentler ancient world. His analysis confirms how even back then, tossing people into a category and then hating them en masse was a choice, not an evolutionary necessity.

Gruen doesn't deny the transhistorical phenomenon of "Us vs. Them" itself. "The denigration," he writes at the outset, "even demonization of the 'Other' in order to declare superiority or to construct a contrasting national identity is all too familiar." What bothers him is the degree to which analysis of "such self-fashioning through disparagement of alien societies" has become "a staple of academic analysis for more than three decades" (he respectfully mentions Edward Said's Orientalism and the progeny it sparked), rendering the factual phenomenon under examination too unquestioned.

As a result, Gruen reports, works of classical scholarship such as François Hartog's The Mirror of Herodotus (University of California Press, 1988) and Edith Hall's Inventing the Barbarian (Oxford University Press, 1989) leave us with the firm understanding that "negative images, misrepresentations, and stereotypes permitted ancients to invent the 'Other,' thereby justifying marginalization, subordination, and exclusion." A natural conclusion when it comes to "Us vs. Them," Gruen writes, is that "the ancients are thus to blame."

Far from rejecting evidence for the standard view, Gruen helpfully sums it up: "Jewish writers excoriated Egyptians for zoolatry and shunned admixture with Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, and Philistines. ... The Romans scattered their biases widely with negative pronouncements on easterners and westerners alike. They dismissed Greeks as lightweights and belittled Jews for superstition. ... Some Greeks ... decried Romans as boors and regarded Jews as having contributed nothing useful to civilization. Egyptians mocked Greeks as recent arrivals in the world's history, and they transformed the Exodus story into a flight of Jewish lepers and pollutants. The list of ethnic aspersions is long."

Gruen's mission, however, is to unpack the contrary story, far less told: "that Greeks, Romans, and Jews (who provide us with almost all the relevant extant texts) had far more mixed, nuanced, and complex opinions about other peoples." In the main text and many useful footnotes of this info-packed but never boring study, Gruen accomplishes that. He shows how the ancients "could also visualize themselves as part of a broader cultural heritage, could discover or invent links with other societies, and could couch their own historical memories in terms of a borrowed or appropriated past."

His examples span the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. In his opening chapters, he concentrates on four pieces of evidence—Aeschylus's Persae, Herodotus's treatment of the Persians, Xenophon's Cyropaedia, and our knowledge of Alexander's cooperation with the Persians—using them to reject the "prevailing scholarly consensus" that Greeks held a consistently negative image of Persians. Turning to Roman attitudes toward the Carthaginians and "Ethiopians," he finds "a more differentiated, varied, and even sympathetic appraisal." Here he examines authors such as Diodorus and Plutarch on the Egyptians, Caesar on the Gauls, and Tacitus on Germans and Jews. Gruen says his aim is to show that "the descriptions and conceptualizations, far from establishing simplistic stereotypes, display subtle characterizations that resist reductive placement into negative (or, for that matter, positive) categories." In the second part of Rethinking the Other, Gruen extends that careful approach to "how Mediterranean societies encountered, even embraced, the traditions of others and introduced them into their own self-consciousness." Here his material includes the biblical tale of Ruth, legends of Jews and Spartans both descending from Abraham, and an array of ancient relationships that demonstrate how, when one examines origin stories, philosophical influences, and mythological tales, the "intertwining of divergent peoples surfaces again and again."

Gruen's close readings rely on far too many concrete pieces of evidence to mention more than a few. In his scrutiny of the Persae, for instance, his attention to the niceties of prostration, the attitude of the chorus of elders, the remarks of a messenger, all support his view that "the play avoids trumpeting any inherent superiority of Hellenes over barbarians." In undercutting the standard view that Herodotus portrays "a collision between freedom and autocracy, between reason and arbitrariness, between western values and oriental barbarism," Gruen details how the historian avoids "cardboard" characterizations of Persians, offers "some admiring comments for Persian practices" (such as truthfulness), detects "no essentialist impulse to freedom in Greece and slavery in Persia," and practically earns Plutarch's accusation, five centuries later, that he was a philobarbaros—a barbarian-lover.

Scholars familiar with ancient sources will quickly note, of course, that Gruen partly achieves his task of emphasizing the generous rather than xenophobic strain among classical writers by his choice of authors. He devotes pages and pages, for instance, to the genial Herodotus, with his decidedly mixed views, while Isocrates—surely the foremost Greek stoker of animosity toward the Persians—appears on all of six pages in a 415-page work. Gruen quickly dispatches Isocrates as a proponent of "jingoism" whose "harsh words ... hardly count as representative of widespread Hellenic opinion."

That, however, remains reasonable given Gruen's announced purpose—to tell the other side of the story. Anticipating possible criticisms, Gruen stresses that his book does not vaunt the ancient world as "some bland amalgam, a Mediterranean melting pot" abounding in "starry-eyed universalism." Rather, his point is that the ancients, like us, enjoyed options in how they categorized others, drew upon others, and defined them in the process of shaping their own cultures. They sometimes chose—more often than one realized before reading Gruen's book—to do so in a spirit of admiration and respect. Contrary to much received opinion, we have some classical role models in resisting "Us vs. Them."

A simple line, in Obama's Tucson memorial speech, captured the existentialist antidote to that ugly psychological strain.

"We may not be able to stop all evil in the world," the president said, "but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us."

We also get to decide how we categorize one another. And who we include in "us." If we included everyone, what might follow from that?

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.