Come with me on a gedankenexperiment - let's play "What if...?" We're gamers; playing "What If..." is what we do for fun, right? I first uttered this post's title when I was about 11, so let's see if the idea holds after 30 years. I'm interested to hear about what you think in the comments. Ready? Here we go...
What if we didn't have the concept of a third person plural pronoun?
Yes, it's a radical thought, but I invite you to play along. How would our perceptions and attitudes change if we couldn't use "they" or "them" in our language? I think the world would be quite different just by eliminating those two tiny words.
Take a minute to think about that. Try to see it. Take a walk through a busy city and listen to people talking on the street. Imagine how schools would teach history differently if the political lines between countries become more indistinct or if they never existed in the first place. How would the world change if we thought of every person as part of a global "us" instead of an abstract "them" tied to geography or genetics? Would we be farther along the civilization tech tree or would our development have stagnated with fewer wars to drive innovation?
Gossip still happens; it's human nature. Do you hear less generalization? Do you hear more "He told me..." rather than "I hear they do..."? Do we engage in more direct debate rather than adopting the attitude of "I don't understand this point of view so it doesn't exist in my world view"? Do we leave the world a better place than we found it?
What did you see on your walk? What did you hear? Was it radically different than what's outside your window right now? What did you learn? What was different in that world? Would you want to live in a world like that?
Here's what I see.
I see fewer dividing lines between people. Politics would become friendlier since we default to including newcomers rather than using hazing rituals to make newcomers earn a place in our tribe. We would have one global community and a multitude of tribes formed around different interests. We would still have corruption and crime, but I think it would be much less rampant since we would think of crimes against other people are crimes against Us.
I see fewer dividing lines between people. We would accept how others play and be less inclined to impose our will on others. We would relent more. We would give up less. We would listen more. We would stress less. We would teach more. We would understand and accept the differences between us, but they would never be greater than the sense of We. I am weak, but We are strong.
I see fewer dividing lines between people. We default to openness instead of suspicion. We accept that different people bring different experiences to the table, and the experience can't be wrong because it was earned. We talk about social contracts, about what actions create positive new experiences and what actions cause pain and confusion. We understand how our words and actions can hurt, and we commit ourselves to learn why so we will spread more joy across our planet than sorrow.
I see fewer ways to categorize people because we implicitly assume that everyone belongs to a single category: human.
Yes, this is a pipe dream.
This idealized vision can't happen overnight. I get that. Today these actions appear as rare gems of humanity, shining half-buried beneath piles of "news" about murder, irreconcilable differences, and hate. Today these actions will earn you titles: Hippie Freak, Ultra-Liberal Socialist, or Starry-Eyed Idealist. Today these actions "don't belong" at the gaming table, where rules are king and "fun" still comes at the expense of others.
When did acting like a human being and treating everyone around you like human beings fall out of vogue? Turn off the TV; civility is still common in the real world. Yes, we are different people. Yes, we have unique experiences. Yes, sometimes I have a hard time understanding why you react the way you do to something I intended as a joke. But is that any reason to dismiss you? Absolutely not. It's an opportunity for me to learn more about you and how the world works beyond my personal experience, and how can I refuse such a precious gift?
What if you started thinking and acting as if there is no "Them"? I doubt we will suddenly change the world by destroying war, erasing bigotry, and ending centuries of dogmatic friction. But you may change your perception which will lead you to live in a different way. Not radically different, but subtly different and hopefully a little more open to other experiences. And if you and I can live differently, maybe we can convince a couple of others to do the same, and maybe they can convince a few others, and eventually We can all change the world together.
Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." If we're all one big We, I think that's a great start to fixing other problems we've created across the planet. If we can't come together as Humanity, we're not going to survive. I believe it's that simple. If we can't stop alienating each other and dispense with believing that I is bigger than We, we'll turn into crows bickering over a carcass that's rotting beneath us. We'll be arguing over the best seat on the Titanic as she points her nose to the sea floor.
I don't know how the world will change or even if it will change by changing this one attitude in myself, but I for one am willing to try it and see what happens. What about you?
I challenge you to live as if there is no "Them".