“Those people” is a generic term for the marginalized and the unfortunate, those who are regarded as freaks, pariahs, losers, and lunatics. Sometimes “those people” are perceived legitimately as crazy, undesirable, or malignant or all three. Other times, they are mere scapegoats, projections of their condemners who find comfort in blinding themselves from their own faults by seeing those same repugnant, self-crippling defects in others.
More specifically, “those people” include a variety of unenviable categories. I cannot make a complete list, nor is that my intention, but to give you an idea of how we identify “those people,” here are some categories that come to mind:
1. Men estranged from their wives who spend ten hours a day in a Starbucks with their laptops. Ostensibly, they are doing a variety of business tasks, but really they are displaced and are creating a home away from the home that they can no longer enter. We look at them and we say, “I hope I never become like that.”
2. Related to the above, men who come home from work and stay in their parked car for sometimes several hours. While they listen to the bustle of their wives and children inside, they drink whiskey from a flask and wait until they’re sufficiently medicated before they enter the house. Sometimes they remain in their cars all night, their heads resting on their steering wheels. We pity these men and say, “But by the grace of God I haven’t become like this.
3. Women who are weird loners to the point of being “undateable” and live in an unkempt abode with several cats whom they talk to at length. It is not uncommon for these women to be students of Wicca, New Age, and various goddess religions and their attire includes flowing floral dresses and tie-dyed tunics. We wonder how lonely their hell is that their waking hours will be spent more talking to cats than talking to humans.
4. Renters who move into a neighborhood they cannot afford to live in as buyers. Their unfortunate condition of being renters is a result of their irresponsible, sometimes pathological lifestyle habits—loud ruckus-causing parties, instant gratification over long-term goals, to name a couple—and they import their pathology to the neighborhood of homeowners. One of their most visible signs is owning third-rate cars with ugly and expensive chrome wheels. We resolve that we will teach our children to be disciplined and never be like “those renters.”
5. Self-righteous do-gooders who like to control other people by laying guilt trips on them and who claim to be devoted to serving others as loving humanitarians when in fact their condescending attitude evidences that they hate people. For example, I heard a persnickety woman call NPR the other day and boast how she “educates” her neighbors on various ways to conserve water. She will even chastise them for watering their lawns too often and discourage them from watering after the early morning so that the water doesn’t evaporate in the sunlight. We see such a person and say to ourselves, “Please never let me be such an obnoxious lout.”
Of course, this small list is just scratching the surface of how many “those people” categories there are. My objective is not to make an exhaustive list but rather to make the point that it is human nature for us to find comfort by labeling others as “those people” because we are glad and relieved that we aren’t “like them” and we bond with others who have, like us, identified the undesirables and since we share scorn and suspicion for “those people,” we experience a bonding process with those who are “like us.”
The need to draw a demarcation line between us and them is as old as the first tribal societies.
Two things need to be said about this demarcation line, however. Number one, the line is not a permanent one. We can, against our will usually, move from the “in” group to the “out” group and back and forth depending on several circumstances, many of which are out of our control. Secondly, the characteristics we attribute to “those people” are often grossly inaccurate and usually based on stereotypes. Perhaps for survival reasons, we reduce others to stereotypes because doing so makes us feel more protected and more closely bonded with those who share our tendency to stereotype and demonize others.
So far I’ve talked about how we often perceive others, accurately or not, as “those people. But now I want to talk about the psychological process of what happens when we perceive ourselves as “those people,” when we wake up to the horrific truth that makes us say, “Oh my God! I’ve become one of them! How in the hell did this happen to me? And what if anything can I do to stop this?”
When we see that a great seismic shift has occurred in our psyche so that we have become undesirable to both society and to ourselves, we have reached one of the greatest struggles we shall ever face. This struggle is literally a battle for our sanity and our lives. It is this battle, this all-consuming inner struggle, that I now want to talk about.