Us versus Them

Mark Gerzon

Private facilitator, Mediator, Trainer, Author and key organizer of the Congressional Civility Retreats

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I had never personally witnessed the way in which a system, which is malfunctioning, can work into your behavior and that really fine people could behave in ways that were toxic. That was a very important experience for me because it helped me understand how very decent people could be part of a Nazi 3rd Reich, or how very decent people could be apart of a pogram against the Jews or how very decent people could witness the annihilation of the American Indians or very decent people could be apart of the lynching of blacks. If not actual instigators of it, they could certainly be witnesses to it and party to it and tolerate it and accept it and that they were not evil people. They were a part of systems that were evil. That was a very important learning experience for me.

Q: Wow, so you really saw behavior dictated by the system in which they operated in?

A: If every person who's born, was labeled A or B and the As could put the Bs out of work and the As could distort and malign the Bs and the Bs could lie about them publicly on television. Basically, to overstate it, if the As could destroy the Bs or the Bs could destroy the As, that's a system, that's going to powerfully affect the way that As and Bs think, the way they populate and raise their children, go to school, go to church, synagogue. That's going to affect everything in their lives because an "us and them" has been created that is going to change forever how we see the whole. It is going to change how they see the world, for better or for worse.

You go into the House, there's a Democratic cloakroom and a Republican cloakroom. There's a Democratic side and a Republican side and a Democratic funding structure and a Republican funding structure. I actually had images of the segregation of the south, where it said "White Entrance" and "Black Entrance" except here it was a Democratic entrance and Republican entrance. You start your political life, and what are you, are you a Democrat or a Republican? Basically, you've got to label yourself. You've got to stick with a Democrat or a Republican on your forehead. So we're having this interview on the table about the Iraq war, and Democratic and Republican didn't matter so much because Democrat and Republican was trumped by another "us and them", by another A and B, it was trumped by American and Iraqi. And so, suddenly, all these differences, and there were all these guys walking in lockstep.

A: I was startled by the fact that this quality of relationship was at the heart of one of the most powerful institutions of the most powerful country in the world. It shocked me that when the stakes were so high, that the quality of the relationship could be so low.

I had this notion that when the stakes got high, the relationships got better because the stakes were so high, but I found out that wasn't true. Major, major, multi-billion dollar things and major issues were often shaped by personal animosities and failure to communicate and hostility and revenge from what people had done previous times. An enormous amount of what I witnessed there was about revenge about what they had done the previous time. So you would ask Republicans why they would trash the majority, they would say, "Well when they were in the majority, they did that to us and now we're going to do that to them. Of course, they want to change it now, they want to be civil now, they're in the minority". But it was revenge, "Well, when they ran the House system, they would shortchange us with seats so.."

Q: Hold up nominations in committee?

A: Yeah, so now we're going to do the same thing, it's our turn. And sure, nobody's getting physically hurt, physically annihilate or any of that, but it's the same basic emotional structure that happens in the Holocaust and the genocides. It's now the Tutus chance to get the Hutus, it's the Serbs' chance to get the Bosnians. And then if the tide shifts, its now our turn to get them and the whole system is structured that way. I noticed that everybody's either majority or minority, they don't know how to have partnerships, that's one of the major things I built into the retreat. So that a room was being managed by a Democrat and a Republican working as a pair and the success of the room depended upon the success of the partnership. It's a very different model from, "I'm the majority and you're the minority. I'm the majority chair of this committee and you're the minority".

That's a top-down hierarchial relationship, there's no such thing as a relationship of equals there.