When I first moved from New Jersey to Alabama to begin the Master’s program in Religion in Culture at UA, my department chair, Russell McCutcheon, sent me a few YouTube videos to help me acclimate to the culture of the new city I would call home for two years. Coming from a small liberal arts college, I wasn’t accustomed to the world of college football (STAC didn’t have a football team of any kind when I was there), but I quickly learned that UA’s football team—along with its rivals—were a (if not the) central part of life in Tuscaloosa.
One of UA’s strongest rivals is the University of Tennessee, which I learned about when McCutcheon sent me the video below:
The video, posted in 2008, depicts an Alabama football fan being interviewed about his hatred for Tennessee. The fan states:
“Man, I hate Tennessee because, first of all, it’s Tennessee! And, and…I just hate ‘em ‘cause they…low down, they dirty, they some snitches. And…I hate they colors; I’m not a dog person. I just hate Tennessee, man.”
He continues in this vein for a full minute, but what we ultimately glean from watching this the video is that, at bottom, this fan hates Tennessee because, well, it’s Tennessee!
Of course, the video gave me a chuckle and did clue me in to UA’s rivalry with UT, but, unsurprisingly to those of us who are familiar with McCutcheon and his work, this little “e.g.,” as he often calls them, is useful for thinking about much more than just Alabama football. Indeed, what this video signals to me is the rhetoric of “us vs. them” that is so central to understanding how group identities are constructed and maintained. Even after listening to the full minute interview several times over, it seems fairly clear that the fan doesn’t hate Tennessee’s team because there’s something intrinsically wrong with or bad about them, but simply because they’re a known rival to Alabama. All of his other listed reasons—their colors, their “snitching,” their mascot—are either central features that identify Tennessee as Tennessee or vague statements about the team’s character that could possibly be true or untrue, but are ultimately unimportant and difficult to verify.
The example that always comes to mind for me when thinking about “us vs. them” rhetoric and how it works is the Holocaust, whether because I was raised Jewish or because it’s an easily identifiable and seemingly extreme example is difficult to say. If you’ll forgive my very brief and oversimplified retelling of history, we must remember that, following the economic devastation which plagued Germany after World War I, Adolf Hitler quickly rose to power, establishing, not the countries involved in the Allied Forces whose leaders had signed the Treaty of Versailles, but Jews as the primary source of strife in Germany (there were, of course, many other groups that Hitler targeted, but the Holocaust specifically refers to the genocide of the Jewish people during World War II). Through his speeches and propaganda, Hitler made of the Jews what Jonathan Z. Smith referred to as a “proximate [or near] other.” Of interest to me as a scholar is Smith’s claim that the concept of “difference” is not a neutral or natural fact of the world. Rather, as he writes in his essay “What a Difference a Difference Makes” (which appears in his volume Relating Religion ):
“Difference is rarely something simply to be noted; it is, most often, something in which one has a stake. Above all, it is a political matter.” (152)
In post-WWI Germany, establishing Jews as the local economic/political enemy gave Hitler a far more convenient scapegoat than the stronger Allied Powers, a group that would take time, money, and military resources to defeat. In the meantime, establishing Jews as “different” and as an internal enemy created the “other” or “them” that was necessary to raise German spirits and solidify the German people as an unshakable in-group. In a sense, Hitler turned the Jews for the German elite into what Tennessee is for the Alabama fan above: an easily identifiable rival that helps police the boundaries of identity, keeping insiders in and outsiders out.
I noted above that the Holocaust seems like an extreme example of “us vs. them” rhetoric, but for those keeping track of politics in the U.S. today, this discourse proves all too familiar. So familiar, in fact, that it keeps popping up along my Facebook wall, often in the form of memes that look like the one below:
The text of this meme reminds me quite a bit of the Alabama fan interview above. The claims made here about “liberals,” however defined, are vague and ultimately tell us very little of value. They don’t make clear anything about liberal policy positions or why those policies might be considered problematic or annoying to conservatives. The comments below the meme, furthermore, devolved into general comments about the selfishness and entitlement of the millennial generation. In effect, it doesn’t seem to be liberal political policies that are the source of conservative ire; instead, conservatives seem to hate liberals because, well, they’re liberals! And it is worth pointing out that, though this meme happens to be from a conservative point of view, both self-identified “liberals” and self-identified “conservatives” engage in this sort of rhetoric. Far from being about weighing the benefits and drawbacks of different policy positions in the U.S., politics seems to be like a football match. I root for my team because they’re my team! And why do I hate the other team? Well, they’re the other team, of course.
And while such rivalries may be fun in a sports stadium, what historical events such as the Holocaust ought to demonstrate to us is that such rivalries—especially the “us vs. them” mentality that drives them—can be dangerous and even deadly when they play out in the political arena. When we’re wearing our team’s colors and rooting for them from the stands, it’s easy to forget that the opposing team put in just as many hours at the gym and in practice, that the other team’s coach probably yells just as loud, and that they believe just as strongly in their colors as we do in ours. Similarly, it’s easy to hate a political party you oppose (or a generation that behaves differently than yours), but much harder to look at the systemic issues that drive policy differences and acknowledge our dependence on and complicity in them. Maybe those differences are not as natural, unshakable, and unchanging as we think.