We all hear a lot about “us” and “them” these days. Donald Trump Tweets something vile or stupid, and this becomes evidence that “they” are also vile and stupid. “We” are the enlightened ones, and we can’t understand why “they” can’t see things our way—or maybe we can. After all, we’ve just said that they’re vile and stupid, right?
Or to put it another way, Roy Moore or Matt Lauer get accused of vile and reprehensible things, and suddenly we feel vindicated. This proves it, we think. They’re a bunch of lying hypocrites.
We like labels and categories in our culture, and for good reason. Labels and categories allow us to make sense of the chaos. Calling someone conservative or liberal can convey a lot of information about her very quickly, and since politics is so complicated and touches so many different issues, being able to quickly make sense of things by use of labels can be helpful.
But our culture is also increasingly diverse and divided, and not just in the obvious ways that the word “diverse” connotes in most conversations these days. Right now people typically talk of “us” and “them” as Trump supporters and those opposed (you decide for yourself who the “us” is”). To the #Resistance types, Trump supporters are easy to identify: they’re white nationalist racists. To Trump supporters, those who don’t support him are Crazy Commies or (perhaps worse) “Establishment.”
To anyone who thinks about the matter for half a minute, this way of seeing things is obviously and even comically simplistic, of course. But that doesn’t stop folks from seeing it that way—and not just Twitter activists.
One of the reasons that I think that Captain America: Civil War is one of the two or three best comic book movies is how well it encapsulates the conflicts that divide Americans. And at first glance, you might think that it encourages the same simplistic view of people that I’ve just been complaining about: the heroes end up divided between those who support the Sokovia Accords and those who don’t. But things are more complicated than that, and that complexity can teach us something about America.
The anti-Accords side includes Captain America, Falcon, Wanda Maximoff, Hawkeye, and Ant Man. Though they’re united in their opposition to U.N. control of the Avengers, their reasons for it are as diverse as they are themselves.
Cap’s opposition is motivated primarily by the corruption that he discovered in S.H.I.E.L.D. If Hydra can infiltrate the most advanced intelligence agency in the world, what chance does the U.N. have of stopping a similar takeover? Falcon no doubt shares Cap’s worries, but he’s also motivated by loyalty to Cap himself. Wanda’s opposition is fueled by her experience as the subject of Hydra experiments and her life in an impoverished eastern European country. What good did the U.N. ever do her? Hawkeye clearly places a lot of value on personal privacy, and Ant Man is about as anti-authority anti-Stark as a person could get.
The pro-Accords side is perhaps even more diverse. Iron Man, War Machine, Vision, Black Widow, and Spider-Man each support the Accords for different reasons. Back in 2010, Tony Stark would have rejected the Accords out of hand. But after his recklessness leads to the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron, it is easy to see how guilt would drive him to support government oversight. In addition, Tony is a futurist, and since he thinks that the Accords are happening whether or not he supports them, it makes sense for him to fall into line. Rhodey supports it because he’s a colonel in the U.S. Air Force; it’s natural for him to obey the approved authorities. Vision supports it because his mind is coldly utilitarian, and he thinks of life purely in terms of numbers (though I think that he sees things differently at the end of the movie). Spider-Man supports it mostly because he’s been manipulated by Tony. Black Widow is an interesting case because she isn’t acting out of conviction. It’s not that she buys into the Accords. She’s simply “reading the terrain,” and she decides that survival (both for her and for the team) requires signing the Accords. And Black Panther supports the Accords for deeply personal reasons: many of his fellow Wakandans were killed during a fight between the Avengers and Crossbones.
Why does all this matter if their motivations all lead them to one of two positions? It matters because lumping people together makes it too easy for us to reject the concerns of others, too easy to attribute to people beliefs that they do not hold, and too easy to blame them for things that they have not done. If I think that all Trump supporters are alike and that they all support Trump for the same reasons, then I can attribute the blind hatred of the Charlottesville mob to people who are as moral and tolerant as you could ask for them to be.
And it matters because people are far more diverse socially and politically than news media, pundits, and others would have us believe. I know an enthusiastic Trump supporter who is also a loving husband to a Hispanic woman and a devoted father to two mixed-race children. I know a Bernie Sanders supporter who is also an avid gun enthusiast. I know a man who supports same-sex marriage but who also believes that bakers shouldn’t be forced to violate their consciences if they oppose same-sex marriage. I know a man who voted for Jill Stein but who is fairly conservative socially speaking.
We have to live with political labels and categories because to do without them would be terribly inconvenient, and they do generally allow us to understand the playing field and alliances between the players. But we have to stop thinking that there is a monolithic “them” out there somewhere.