What Makes You My Enemy?

Lessons from History

Increasingly, it seems, people are quick to escalate what might be viewed as differences into animosities. This has manifested itself in a number of different ways in recent years.

It is evident in politics, where people view those with political views different from theirs as enemies. Politics is becoming less an arena where compromise and negotiation can smooth over differences and more an arena where one side wins and the other loses. If one side claims the other is their enemy, does that imply that the other side should also view them as enemies? That seems to be a recipe for escalation and conflict.

It’s evident in international affairs. Putin has declared NATO the enemy of Russia—a threat to its security—and initiated a preemptive strike on Ukraine. If Russia declares NATO to be its enemy, does that make Russia NATO’s enemy? As military equipment from NATO countries pours into Ukraine, it appears so.

Things don’t have to be this way. After World War II, Germany and Japan began a cooperative relationship with the nations they were at war with in the 1940s, a cooperative relationship that lasts up until this day. Why is Russia not a part of this global cooperation? Yes, there is that Cold War history, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union, why has Russia not established better relationships with its European neighbors? One reason is Putin’s confrontational rhetoric.

Germany and France do not view each other as threats, despite their shared border and their history of military conflict. They were able to put that behind them. Why would anyone think that Ukraine or Finland would be a threat to Russia? When Putin’s confrontational rhetoric declares these countries to be his enemies, that seems to bring with it the implication that Russia is their enemy.

Yet another area in which this rhetoric arises is race relations. Whites are being told that simply because of their race, they are the enemy. This editorial in the Seattle Times tells us, “We are all socialized in whiteness as a by-product of living here. The primary purpose of whiteness is to consolidate power through the value, protection and reinforcement of white western ways of knowing and being at the expense of nonwhite racial and ethnic identities via structural racism.” If whites are being told they are the enemy of Blacks, does this make Blacks the enemy of whites?

Martin Luther King hoped people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, but when people are not only being judged by the color of their skin but told that those of a different color are the enemy, this is a recipe for violence.

The recent supermarket shooting in Buffalo by a young white supremacist was a horrible event, and there is no possible justification or excuse for his actions. But one must wonder if the racial rhetoric saying that whites are the enemy of Blacks would not prompt the shooter to think that therefore, Blacks are the enemy of whites.

I’m not assigning blame for the shooting to anyone but the shooter. But the rhetoric of white supremacists reinforces the rhetoric of critical race theorists, which prompts a backlash by white supremacists. As the rhetoric escalates, it is natural for both sides to think, “If you tell me I am your enemy, that implies that you are my enemy.”

That rhetoric sows division, whether it is a partisan divide in politics, political tensions in Europe, or racial tensions in the United States. Its origin lies in the tribalism that is a part of human nature. Instinctively, we are ready to see things as “us against them” in all of these arenas.

We have developed institutions to tame these tribal instincts to a degree, most notably in sports. The battle of my team against your team can channel those tribal instincts in a peaceful and entertaining direction, but as the examples above show, our tribal instincts have not been completely tamed.

In all of those examples, we would all be better off if we worked to cooperate with each other rather than declaring others to be our enemies. Too often, tribal instincts win out, and the desire to win overcomes the desire to get along.

But nobody should be surprised that, if one group declares another to be their enemy, the other group will also think of the two as enemies.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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