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Us Versus Them

‘Us versus them’ is a common stance some people take in our society. The ‘us’ is a group of people with a social identity that is demonizing another group of people.  Often, this us/them conflict is a tool used by cult-like groups to bond members of their social identity and increase loyalty and group-think behavior. Promoting an enemy to hate increases the power of the group identity and diminishes the identity of the individual. Hate for others becomes a dysfunctional social identity for the group that perpetuates itself.

1 May 2016, now Representative Lauren Boebert readies her children for church with her gun on her hip.  (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

When discussing the state of the world, many journalists and scholars say that we have become a divided society. Ian Bremmer in Time suggested that the split has been caused by race, capitalism, and the media. Fred Cook of the USC Center for Public Relations suggests that it is a problem of communication.

Michael Capuano and Jim Douglas state in the Boston Globe that all our problems in a divided country are fixable. Jonathan Holloway, President of Rutgers, wrote that our fundamental problems are: 

…our unwillingness to learn from one another, to see and respect one another, to become familiar with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and who hold different political views.

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway

He continues by suggesting a mandatory year national service program as the solution.

Dysfunctional Social Identity Worst Enemy:  Reconciliation

Most discussions of the ‘us-versus-them’ division in today’s world seem to ignore the dysfunctional social identity of cult-like groups. These groups are easily threatened by outside influences and compromise or reconciliation is unacceptable.

Trump supporters’ mistrust of the media is an example of a cult’s resistance to ideas and information outside of their social identity. Recognition of the other perspectives is a challenge to the cult’s unity; therefore, any attempt to mend differences is not only difficult, but it would also require the dysfunctional group to lessen their social identity. In this situation, hate can become a necessity to maintain the social identity of the group.

Importance of a Healthy Self Identity

Our self-identity is a key element of the human psyche. Identity, or who we believe we are as a person, drives our decision-making process. Having a stable self-identity is considered a key element of our personal well-being. A lack of self-identity is associated with the Dark Triad of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

  • Narcissism:  Traits include selfishness, boastfulness, arrogance, lacking of empathy, and hypersensitive to criticism.

  • Machiavellianism:  Traits include duplicity, manipulation, self-interest, and a lack of both emotion and morality.

  • Psychopathy: Traits include a lack of empathy or remorse, antisocial behavior, and being manipulative and volatile. (Not the same as a psychopath, with its commonly held association with criminal violence.)

From MindTools.com

People with a healthy sense of self tend to be more confident and independent thinkers. They tend to manage relationships better by avoiding or rejecting abusive situations. Positive self-identity also helps a person to appropriately assess and accept healthy interactions with others.

Overreliance on a social group’s identity is a strong indicator that the individual lacks a good self-image. Cult-like groups take advantage of that with a strong social identity of the group. As a result, the person becomes less of an individual. The person’s identity becomes part of the social identity of the group.

Functional and Dysfunctional Social Identity

Dependence on social identity is problematic, but that does not mean social identity is always unhealthy. A balance of self-identity and social identity is necessary for a healthy individual. Examples of functional or dysfunctional social identity are as follows:

Competitive Sports Teams

  • Functional – Group members support the team through respectful and honorable behavior. Unsportman behavior by the home team or fans is not acceptable.
  • Dysfunctional – Group members are obsessed with the team and are abusive to competing teams. Group members have a strong need to display team logos throughout all aspects of their life, including daily wear, on their vehicles, and within their workplaces. Group members ignore team or individual unethical behavior or even praise the bad behavior.

After a Mississippi touchdown, Elijah Moore simulates a dog urinating in a 2019 game against Mississippi State. (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)


  • FunctionalMembers have pride in their community and strive to support and improve it.
  • Dysfunctional – Members see other communities as competitors and non-residents as undesirables. Members are obsessive in the praise of their community and often are unable to recognize issues or faults within their community. Unethical behavior is acceptable and encouraged if it benefits the community and harms outsiders.


  • Functional – Members have pride and support those of similar demographics without disrespecting or demonizing people of other demographics.
  • Dysfunctional – Members have a strong dislike and/or fear of those not who are not part of their demographic. On a public level, they often seek to elect politicians that will support the views and culture of their demographic and target others with laws and policies to do harm or be offensive. On a private level, they will be rude or insensitive to people outside of their demographic, even resorting to physical violence.

Identifying the Real Problem

Those caught up in a group with a dysfunctional social identity create strife and bitterness in their effort to promote hate of other people and groups. The adage, “It takes two to Tango”, fails to take into account that it only requires one person’s bad behavior to be insulting or divisive. In the case of a group with a dysfunctional social identity, the need to promote conflict is central to the unity within the group. The impact is a steadily escalating fracture of society.