By Sadia Reza
The “Us vs. Them” phenomenon has divided humanity for centuries – creating divisions between races, cultures, political factions, countries and numerous other binal groups. In his science fiction work Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card explores the question of how theory of mind works in the psychological process of othering.
Theory of mind has so far been considered in two ways:
1. As an imperative social skill which enables the brain to understand the thoughts, feelings, desires and intentions of others, or otherwise see from the perspective of others
2. As the means through which empathy works.
What happens to these two features of ToM when the relationship between two people, or groups of people, resembles an “us vs. them” phenomenon? Are we capable of applying ToM to others whom we consider to be foreign, an adversary or otherwise different from us? Is there a psychological difference between how we use ToM when we interact with them? And what may be the effects of limiting this aspect of ToM? Science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem asserts in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy:
“This Us-and-Them mentality…represents a failure of the imagination” (247). At its core, theory of mind requires imagination – “imagining” the other’s perspective, thoughts and feelings. The “failure of the imagination,” then, is equivalent to “failure to extend theory of mind” to another.
In Ender’s Game, Card demonstrates that the process of othering distorts communication between groups, and impedes the extension of theory of mind to the perceived “other.”