Why Do We Have So Many More Enemies Lately?


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    5-23

ABSTRACT:  Discusses our psychological reasons for labeling enemies, the damage this can do, and alternative attitudes.

KEY WORDS:  enemies, friends, over-generalizing, politics

With the advent of being exposed to the views of so many other people via the internet, many of us have realized that lots of our fellow citizens have views that we disagree with.  The general result is rallying-the-wagons—joining up with those who agree with us for support in a dispute with those who disagree with us.  This basic rallying is what created political parties, since most people are actually unsure of their views and the truth of their views, and they feel much better being around those who see things, for the most part, the same way (so they don’t have to question their own views).  We also like the fact that rallying with similar other people makes us feel more powerful ourselves, as if we could stand against enemies or perhaps overcome them (with a little help from our friends).

The fact that are so many competing opinions about public policy makes us uncomfortable, since this points out that in a democracy no one gets exactly what he/she wants.  Everything is a conglomeration of various opinions, and almost every bill that becomes law contains compromises.  It’s important that we hear all voices and opinions, but our final result must be something that applies to everyone, advantages the greatest number, and disadvantages the fewest (and this is not likely to be identical to any individual citizen’s views).

Seeing this variety of opinions has been a startling experience for many and has caused them to start categorizing others in terms of their politics.  The simplest labels are liberal (most basically, someone who presses for fewer constraints for individuals and is very willing to experiment with society) and conservative (most basically, someone who values tradition, is emotionally attached to symbols of his/her beliefs, and is skeptical about unnecessary tinkering with society).  We also label people in terms of just how liberal or conservative they are (Progressive, moderate, etc.) and their distance from the center—extremist or fringe.

In general we call things “good” that assist us in reaching our goals and reassure us about ourselves and our opinions, and we call things “bad” that do the opposite.  We label public policy ideas, ways of treating others, others’ individual behaviors, and other people as “good” or “bad.”  “Bad” people and ideas seem like a threat to us, and if we perceive their threat to be considerable and imminent, we call them enemies.  Discovering that there are many people in society with ideas that we see as wrong or potentially harmful to us has resulted in (depending on the personality disposition of the labeler) believing that there are a lot of “bad” people out there and that some of them are enemies.  So, we have a lot more enemies than we used to, since in our past ignorance we just didn’t know that they existed.  The media have augmented this internet effect, since they compete for our attention and since we pay a lot more attention to things that are salacious, violent, frightening, for shocking.  Media try to arouse our emotions by convincing us that we are in conflict with others and that some others are a danger to us.

We think that we must guard against and seek to defeat enemies, since we think that they portend imminent damage to us, so it is easy to engage in the tactics that we grew up with—people expressing their opinions strongly and using their dominance and their ability to harm us (nasty words and labels, demeaning us, threatening us) to “win” a confrontation and declare victory.  All parents do this to some degree, so all of us see it and learn how to do it. 

Key to maintaining our view of others as enemies is our continued ignorance of them.  We don’t really know what they think.  All we know is what is reported in the news and what others report to us that they have supposedly said or done, but this coverage is very limited and on the part of the media, very selective (to get and keep your attention and to invite you to identify yet another enemy).  Most of our “enemies” individually have a wide variety of opinions (not all exclusively Democratic or Republican opinions), and our whole group of “enemies” are a bunch of people who individually have many opinions that are different from those of our other enemies, so we should beware of generalizing inappropriately.  Some of these opinions are probably similar to ours, but we are unlikely to ever know that.  Also, most of those whom we think are our “enemies” are actually “decent” people, which we would know if we actually knew them.  Similarity and decency breed alliance, so for someone who loathes Mitch McConnell, seeing him in everyday interaction with staff or family would very likely soften his/her opinion.

Check out the real bases for others’ opinions.  Some opinions are based on wrong assumptions, and a calm, exploration of facts can help.  Many conservative actions are based in a desire to keep things the way they are, and this is a legitimate political stance, but you will miss seeing this if the debate is about whether a specific proposal (such as banning certain books) is “right” or “wrong,” because no conservative is going to admit in debate that they just want things to stay the same.  Many liberal actions are based in guilt about things being “unfair” in society, which means, psychologically, that the liberal person has some doubt about his/her own “right” to all he/she has in life (or has over-empathy, in which every pain of someone else is too much to bear).  No liberal person is going to admit that he/she can’t stand others’ pain and wants us all to change something so there won’t be any more pain.

Consider also that you probably have as many or more things in common with a potential enemy than you have differences of opinion.  We are all citizens here, which automatically puts us in the same boat.  It may well be that this is someone you disagree with but of whom you are not really an enemy.

Besides knowing more about supposed enemies, the other key to doing what we can about our political divide is to reassess whether people with opinions different from our own are actually a threat.  If they are no threat, then we disagree with them, but they are not enemies.  It’s harder to talk to enemies, but we can readily talk to those who disagree with us, if both of us can keep it civil.

If other citizens claim that they would institute policies that will cost you more in taxes or disenfranchise you, then that is a threat worth taking seriously, but for many of us, these disagreements are about what we “believe,” like how much reverence to give the flag or whether local district attorneys should have the power to say that they will not enforce certain laws.  For some, the mere existence of other religions calls their own religion into question (in their own minds), which frightens them and pushes them toward distancing themselves from those who believe differently.

It would seem that the threat in many these kinds of cases is due to our own uncertainty about our own beliefs.  If we knew clearly what we believed and why, then others’ differing beliefs would not cause us to feel threatened, and it would seem possible to “live and let live.”  If someone is Jewish and someone else is Catholic, what is the threat (unless one of those groups says they would like to deport those of other faiths or forbid their worship, etc.)?  For many of these kinds of disagreements it would seem possible to live side-by-side with those we disagree with if we are comfortable with our own beliefs and if we recognize that the matter is a matter of belief—that there is no factual right or wrong. 

Check out this possibility for yourself.  Could you accept someone else’s opinions that are different from yours and therefore relax about the disagreement, as long as you are not directly threatened?  This will work for many disagreements on matters of belief and opinion, unless one side claims as a “fact” something that the other side disputes, as in the case of abortion, where one side claims that from the moment of conception the foetus is a “person,” and the other side simply doesn’t see it that way.

This could work for most of our political differences, too, as long as (1) we give the other person the right to have his/her opinion, and (2) we agree that a policy decision should be a compromise that gives maximum advantage to many and disadvantage to few.  Do you truly give your “opponents” and “enemies” the right to their own opinions, or do you want them to “shut up” and stop bringing your beliefs into question?  Will you accept a system where public policy decisions take into account seriously the views of all sides?  Frankly, to do anything less is to threaten our democracy.  If you have to have it your way, then you don’t want a democracy.  You want a dictatorship of some kind (on the basis of power or religion or ethnic group, etc.).

In our democracy, all should be equal in terms of their influence on our public policy outcomes.  If you want to be equal in this sense, then you must give others that right, too.  If you want to vanquish the other side, then you don’t believe in democracy!

There are some (or many) in our society that want to create conflict and even violence over things that do not have to be threatening.  They do this by expressing themselves in upset and emotional ways (think of political talk-show hosts), by demeaning those who disagree as not being worthy of even having their different opinions, and by voicing threats to you that are actually very far-fetched.  You have almost certainly heard in the media that immigrants are trying to “replace” white workers in our country, and that everyone who owns a gun is trigger-happy and spoiling for a fight.  Neither of these things is true (even if some immigrants do end up in jobs previously held by whites and even though people with guns must have a higher likelihood of using them than do people without guns), but if you hear others being upset about those possibilities, you may be drawn into being fearful and upset yourself about the merest of possibilities.  No, pro-abortion people don’t hate children, no matter who says in the media that they “must hate children,” and no, anti-abortion people don’t want to make life hard for women who don’t want children but who have become pregnant anyway.  Be careful about believing everything that others are upset about.  Find out for yourself before you commit.  Talk to some actual people on the other side (not those in the media).

It has become commonplace to say that everyone is biased to some degree about some things, but take care!  If “everyone” is biased, then that includes you.  If you are biased, too, then you have no basis for asserting that your opinion or belief is more “right” or more “correct” than anyone else’s, except that you believe it.  This again points up why we need a political system that can listen to all these somewhat biased opinions and work together to see what we can do to solve whatever problems we have.  We must accept that, perfect as our opinions seem to us, they do not seem perfect to some other citizens.  No dictatorship will overcome this problem, because it will permit only certain opinions to be expressed.


Think for yourself.  Just because someone else is upset about something doesn’t mean that there is good reason for them to be upset or a good reason for you to be upset.

Find out as much as you can about “the facts.”  Look to different media and other sources of opinion, not just to one source.

Interact with some people whose opinions are different from yours.  Size them up as people, not just opinions.  Find out what they actually “mean” when they express their opinions.  Find out the real reasons why they are upset about something. 

Search within yourself for why a difference of opinion seems like a threat to you.  Is it really a threat or only an exciting invitation to have an argument?  What do you actually believe?

Redefine “enemy.”  If you feel that someone is an enemy, ask yourself why?  Work on your own confidence in your opinions and positions until you can allow others to have theirs without you feeling threatened by that.  Give “live and let live” a chance.

Before thinking of someone as an enemy, think about the ways in which he/she has things in common with you.  You may have many more things in common, as citizens and persons, than you have differences of opinion, and this may mean that you disagree but are not really enemies.

Before you speak, ask yourself if you are giving others the rights you want for yourself.  If we are all equals, then we all have the same right to have and express those opinions.

Commit yourself to supporting a system of government in which all opinions are heard (with appropriate respect) and then debated until an appropriate compromise is reached.  Say that to others who treat you like an enemy!