Is ‘the ubiquitous enemy’ simply a surface-level mental trap into which human beings get caught out of some vulnerability? Or is finding yet another enemy the result of our looking actively and profoundly for one and – if need be – creating one?
This text was written on the 11th of November, armistice day. We remember the end of (the first act of) the Great War that stopped because of the lack of resources enhanced by a devastating (arguably more than the war itself) Spanish Flue. But why exactly did the Great War start? And why the present one, again destroying parts of Europe?
Two concrete examples from recent years
- COVID, with the virus as ‘the enemy.’ Despite much international effort (on my part), no research has been done on the causal role of the psyche. See my own perspective article on this in Brain, Behavior, Immunity. How many billion € are we talking about here? How many human lives? As a personal estimate, I get to 50% of the misery. Maybe it’s only 10%; is that worth it? What are we doing toward the next pandemic?
- War in Ukraine, with ‘the enemy’ depending on the side: the Russians/Putin, or the Ukrainians/the West. Where is the deep diplomacy here? As far as I can see, nowhere.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons for this war, described here, which are always to be found. This is not about what is right in front of one’s nose but more or less behind it. Does that play a significant role or not? From the same finger, I again get 50%.
You may wrongly wonder where I get my certainties from. Wrongly, because they are not certainties, only huge suspicions. My point is that within a fundamentalist enemy mindset, one does not have the opportunity to think rationally about the above. One closes oneself up in a frightening general active denial, or throws a lump in the reed.
Humans seem to be creating enemies.
If so, then one can philosophize about possible causes. For instance, in a psychosocial environment such as the human brain, something like ‘the enemy’ may naturally lead to personal meaning and importance. The fundamental human driver in this is not rationality, nor some meaningful item or ideology, but meaningfulness itself.
Meaning is the most meaningful thing on Earth.
Unfortunately, the meaning crisis shows that we are not on an optimal course ― especially when the enemy (nationally or internationally) is used in an attempt to mitigate the crisis. We see this happening in many places, from hostile fury between Democrats and Republicans in the US to the West vs. Russia, and Taiwan being the evil Chinese renegade. Of course, the same happens with very many small groups.
Undoubtedly, there is always more to the enemy than meets the eye.
Protecting the own kin
In this protective sense, ‘the enemy’ doesn’t start with the enemy, but what the enemy might be aggressive against: the own kin as the prime source of meaningfulness. This brings the importance of having an enemy closer to human nature itself.
This also accords with experiments on certain moles. Taking away the neuromodulator vasopressin in male moles simultaneously reduces their acting lovingly (toward their partner and offspring) and their aggressiveness toward other moles even if these don’t cause immediate danger. Vasopressin works as an on/off switch in the two directions.
Apparently, being social brings us empathy ― and hostility. If there isn’t any enemy yet, may we create one because while doing so, it eventually helps us feel meaningfully bonded, the feeling we long for?
Controlling the environment to protect and defend oneself individually may be innate to every animal species. If, as in mammals, the self broadens to the close kin (see above), this also becomes the reason for the control.
The problem with humans, however, is the propensity for Inner Dissociation (between conscious and non-conscious, yet meaningful mental processing) in which anxious people become their own enemies. Defense and aggression become self-oriented. This is deeply related to the mounting tension of a pending mental paradigm shift that is becoming mandatory for a humane future. A global humanism that takes this into account could stand at the forefront.
Totalitarianism may show something profound.
In strict totalitarianism, the enemy is not only the outsider but anyone who is not some clone of the same self. Eventually, the enemy is everyone, including the totalitarian dictator to himself ― the historical direction of fascism.
The above may make clear why this, despite its insanity, can appeal to many people. Unfortunately, we may see this principle being enacted in Russia nowadays. In unwholesome settings and given a specific human vulnerability (here we are), people create enemies inside themselves, in others, and eventually in other peoples. Diminish the sense of reality, put some additional anxiety sauce into the mix, get some power of the masses going, and any sad sociopath can abuse them, making the utterly abnormal into normal. This does not need to be the result of a thought-out strategy ― rather of brutally finding this crooked path. War situations get born almost inevitably.
If creating ‘the enemy’ is inborn, do we have an existential problem?
Cautiously, I would say: Yes. If left unchecked, humankind will go on creating enemies in new guises and formats ― going to a future of anxiety, resentment, increasingly sophisticated and dangerous weaponry, and war.
By acknowledging the problem, one can try to find a solution. So, does this solution lie in transcending human nature? Or is there a solution to be found within our human nature?
Widening the circle of ‘us.’
To me, the way out corresponds with a way in ― toward inside oneself. We need to get beyond the above-mentioned mental paradigm shift. Then, we can deal with us-versus-them. For instance, in the US, we see Democrats mainly vilifying the other side with little or no deep listening. They may first need to listen – profoundly – to themselves. I don’t see that happening (nor the other way around).