Sunday Telegraph

Saturday, 02 April 2011 01:25

The Sunday Telegraph
The Sunday Magazine - Colour supplement, Australia

March 4, 2001

Love Thine Enemy

Do you have an enemy – someone who hates you and wants to harm you, even destroy you? It might be just one person or a group of people. Of course, everyone has at least one enemy somewhere in the world, someone who hates us because of our nationality, or our gender, or our religion, or the colour of our skin, and who wants to destroy us, but we don’t know who this person is. Do you know who your enemy is? Can you give your enemy a name?

I’ve been asking people whether they’ve got an enemy. Some people say they don’t have an enemy, but a lot of people say they do. They’ll say, ‘It’s my ex-wife’, or, ‘My family’, or, ‘My boss’, or, ‘My next door neighbour’, or, ‘Politicians’, or, ‘Anyone who betrays me or lets me down’, or, ‘People who always think they’re right.’ In Lebanon I found that the enemy was the Israelis, in Serbia the enemy was the Americans, and in Northern Ireland, while the Protestants and the Catholics hated one another, they all hated the British government. Having an enemy is a very popular pastime

Yet having an enemy can’t make you happy. Even if your enemy hasn’t physically harmed you, you can spend a great deal of time thinking about your enemy and feeling angry and resentful. You can use up vast amounts of energy in making plans to protect yourself, and you can develop all sorts of fantasies about getting revenge. Life without an enemy would be much more pleasant, yet, having an enemy can give us many advantages. That’s why we hang on to our enemies and won’t give them up.

The first and greatest advantage of having an enemy is that an enemy turns a diverse collection of people into a tight-knit group. This is a common experience in the workplace. A group of people can work together but hardly know one another, or be selfish and bicker over small things. Then a boss arrives who is determined to change how the place operates, but he doesn’t know how to deal with staff. I never cease to be amazed at how many managers are textbook cases of how not to handle people. This kind of boss might be just stupid, or he might be might be planning to get rid of the workers he doesn’t like, so he doesn’t care what he does to them, but, whatever, as soon as the workers see him as their enemy, they all join together. They find that being at work is exciting and interesting. Everyone’s talking to one another, sharing news and jokes, and instead of blaming one another for whatever goes wrong they now have one person to blame, their enemy, the boss.

Bosses who are cunning managers of people will often create some kind of enemy for their staff to hate. It might be a commercial competitor, or another part of the workforce, or a rival sports team, but, whatever the enemy, the staff get enthused about their work. They not only get along together, they work more productively.

Throughout history leaders have often created an enemy in order to unite their people and to secure their own power. It’s often said that Australia became a nation in the First World War when Australian troops were sent to fight the Germans. This unity soon fell apart as Australia was plunged into the Great Depression of the thirties when over thirty percent of the workforce was unemployed and many people went hungry. It needed the Second World War to unite the country again.

However, we don’t always hate a national enemy just because our leader tells us to. In the Second World War, even though Australians deplored the Nazi regime in Germany and felt very threatened by the Japanese advance on Australia, people didn’t suddenly, all together, start to hate the Germans and the Japanese. Most people could see a clear difference between the government a country might have and the ordinary people in that country. So the Australian government had to embark on a propaganda campaign to teach us to see all Germans and Japanese as our enemies and to hate them. I was in primary school then, and I can remember having to take part in school plays that taught us who were our allies and who were our enemies.

Soldiers have to be taught to hate the enemy. My father, Jack Conn, a soldier in France during the First World War, would often tell me the story of the first Christmas in the trenches, how German and British soldiers, feeling miserable, met in no-man’s land to talk, laugh and play games. After this troops were forbidden to fraternise with the enemy and every Christmas there was an especially heavy bombardment of German lines.

Nevertheless, soldiers don’t always learn to hate their country’s enemies. Jack Conn didn’t hate the Germans, and Ted Rowe, the man I married, never hated the Japanese, even though he was in the Australian Army from 1939 to 1946. For years after the war Ted had nightmares which re-enacted some of his wartime experiences. When he was in water transport in Darwin one of his jobs was to take supplies to the Australian troops still on Japanese-held Timor. One night, just as he was docking his boat in a harbour in Timor, he discovered that the people coming on board his boat were not Australians but Japanese soldiers. Ted managed to escape but his near-disaster haunted him. After the war Ted became a lawyer and, like most lawyers, he could often be magnificently paranoid, but he never directed this paranoia at the Japanese, and, years later, he was very pleased to have a Japanese daughter-in-law.

Ted didn’t see the Japanese as his enemy because he didn’t feel that the Japanese soldiers were out to get him. He knew that any Australian soldier in his position on that boat would have been in danger of being killed by the Japanese. The Japanese soldiers were a threat to his safety, but they weren’t his personal enemies. To see those who put us in danger as an enemy we have to see our adversary as having selected us as the special target for their destructive designs. We take their enmity personally.

Moreover, we need to see our enemy, not as a person, but as an object which we can destroy. Pauline Hanson was quoted recently as saying of the boat people, ‘I’d give them food and fuel and turn them around and if the boat sinks, too bad.’ Obviously Pauline doesn’t let herself imagine what it must be like to be on one of those boats and know that you’re never going to make a safe landfall. Both Jack Conn and Ted Rowe knew that the German and Japanese soldiers were young men like themselves and could imagine what they were going through.

Identifying whether someone actually is your enemy can be very difficult. If another nation wanted to destroy utterly our own nation and culture, just as the Nazis wanted to destroy the Jewish people and their culture, then that nation would be trying to destroy each of us, but how can you decide whether a colleague or relative who is unhelpful or hurtful to you is your enemy? We can always be quite clear about whether someone is a friend or not, but whether someone is an enemy can be very confusing. We can ask ourselves whether this person actually wants to harm us, or whether he’s so stupid he doesn’t understand what harm he’s inflicting on us, or whether we just happen to be in his way and anyone in our position would be in danger. That old saying, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that someone isn’t out to get you’, reflects our confusion about enemies.

Often the fear we feel when we suspect that we’ve got an enemy is much greater than the threat really merits. What we feel is akin to the fear we feel when we discover that we are prey to something which is much more powerful than us. In the workplace bosses have more power than the workers, so as a worker we can feel helpless and weak, just as our ancient ancestors did when they were about to be devoured by a huge, wild beast. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this fear has been handed down from one generation to another as part of evolution, but really we don’t need evolution to explain why we have a fear of being prey. When we were children we were often prey to huge, dangerous beasts, only these beasts were adults and older children. They could surprise us, and hurt us, and make us feel we were very much in danger. Our ancient ancestors tried to protect themselves by banding together with their fellows, and we as children did that same. We looked to our family to protect us.

However, the security which comes from belonging in a group never comes for free. The group always exacts a price. If you want the security of belonging to the nation of Australia you have to be prepared to pay its taxes and obey its laws. If you want the security of belonging to a family you have to give up being a selfish, self-centred baby and learn to be a good child, that is, you had to learn to be clean, unselfish and unaggressive.

Alas, learning to be good doesn’t mean that we no longer feel any urge to be dirty, selfish and aggressive. What can we do with these urges which our family, and our society, will not tolerate? This is where having an enemy can be so useful. We can project on to our enemies those parts of ourselves which we find unacceptable. We say to ourselves, ‘It isn’t me who is wicked. It’s my enemy.’ In every conflict each side describes the other in the same terms. The first word which is used to describe an enemy is ‘dirty’. Remember ‘ethnic cleansing’? The second part of the description is a string of words that refer to selfishness – greedy, uncaring, cruel – while the third term is always ‘aggressive’. We are peaceful people: our enemy is aggressive. Even if we had got our retaliation in first, we never started the conflict. It was our enemy. A fourth term is often applied to enemies by people who have difficulty with their own sexuality. They ascribe to their enemy gross, bizarre sexual practices.

Seeing the group we belong to as good and the group’s enemy as wicked brings a great deal of comfort. Even better, when we might doubt that we’re sufficiently up to the mark, we can assure ourselves that, even if we aren’t perfect, we belong to the best group in the world. I’ve often heard Australians, making their first visit to England and becoming rattled by how different England is from Australia, telling themselves and me how awful England is and how much better things are in Australia. Thus they can feel superior because they’re Australians. In the first two years I was in England I worked with a group of old-fashioned psychiatrists who often amazed and horrified me. I’d think to myself, ‘What else can you expect from a bloody Pom!’ Now I’ve lived in England for long enough to know that the Poms are human beings just like us.

Whenever we feel the need see some group of people as our enemy what we are trying to do is to defend our sense of being a person. Whenever we lose confidence in ourselves, whenever we feel weak and vulnerable, we feel that we are going to be annihilated as a person. We have to defend ourselves.

The sense of being a person, what you call ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’, is made up of all your ideas, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, memories, images and feelings, in fact all the meanings you have created to make sense of yourself, your life and the world you live in. All these meanings form a structure which isn’t an accurate reflection of everything you’ve encountered but a picture, an approximation, a theory about what’s going on. When your life is going along well, everything that’s happening around you seems to confirm your picture of yourself, your life and your world. However, sometimes you discover that you’ve made a major error of judgement, that there’s a serious discrepancy between what you thought your life was and what it actually is. Anyone old enough to be reading this is old enough to have had this terrible experience at least once. You might have discovered that the person you thought would be your life companion has left you, or that your future career is no longer open to you, or that you’d always believed that if you’re good nothing bad will happen to you, and now you’ve discovered that no amount of goodness prevents disaster. When you see such discrepancy you feel that there’s nothing solid in the world and, worse, your whole self is crumbling, shattering, even disappearing. You fear that you will vanish like a wisp of smoke in the wind or a raindrop into the ocean. You’re utterly terrified.

When we were small children we often experienced this terrible fear because we knew so little about the world and we often made mistakes. We set about developing ways of acting and thinking which, we hoped, would prevent us ever having this experience again. Consequently everything we do has as one of its aims to protect ourselves as a person. Enemies help us do this.

The biggest threat to our sense of being a person comes from other people. They can undermine our self-confidence, and, as our self-confidence diminishes, we find it harder to hold ourselves together. Other people can show us that we’ve made an error of judgement. As much as we need other people, other people are dangerous. However, if a group has an enemy, the people in the group are much nicer to one another. This is why people who are interested in soccer don’t just choose a team to support. They choose another team to hate, to see as their enemy. Enemies can make team sports much more interesting.

Another great threat to our sense of being a person is having to admit to yourself that you’ve failed, or you’ve made a mistake or done something wrong. But an enemy can save us from the tedious business of having to take responsibility for what we do. We can blame all our failures and all our errors and defeats on our enemy. My friend Dusan in Belgrade told me how his father, once a boyhood friend of Peter II, the last king of Serbia, had what Dusan called ‘a hen laying golden eggs, because he had those enemies he could blame for every problem he had in his life. Every failure he had he would put the blame on the Communists. He was not chosen to be a professor because he was not a Communist – the Communists wouldn’t allow non-Communists to be professors. And then he had a big failure in his marriage – and that was because he didn’t have a big apartment. Big apartments are reserved for party members: he was not a party member. He was drinking heavily, and he’d say he wouldn’t be doing that if he’d been given all the things he deserved.’

Dusan’s father didn’t want to understand what had happened to him and so come to terms with his disappointments and losses. When we take into adult life the unresolved conflicts of our childhood we suffer in many different ways. Some people, wisely, by reading and discussion and perhaps going into therapy resolve the conflicts they had with their parents and siblings, but others act out their unacknowledged hatred, anger and jealousy by creating an enemy and then expressing these emotions against their enemy. An unacknowledged hatred of your father can seriously impair your ability to deal with anyone in authority.

Having an enemy is exciting, and life can be so dull and ordinary. I’ve met a lot of people who looked back to their youth in the Second World War as being the most best time of their life. Many people find that, as they get older, chance events and the choices they’ve made have led them to be quite alone without anyone to take notice of them and see them as important. Some of these people become paranoid. They believe that they know about a conspiracy by some powerful people who are plotting to take over the world, or they are convinced that television presenters speak to them directly and that messages on television and radio have a significance intended for them alone. The great thing about being paranoid is that someone, somewhere, is thinking of you.

When a conflict with an enemy comes to an end some people can find it hard to forgive because they’ve made their enemy an essential part of themselves as a person. In the Australia I grew up in there was a complete split between Protestants and Catholics, all foreigners were abhorred, and the Aboriginal people weren’t seen as being really human. In recent studies of racism and of attitudes towards reconciliation with Aboriginal people my generation comes out as still the most racist and anti-Aboriginal. Noel Pearson has expressed concern that some of the older Aboriginal leaders think only in terms of past suffering at the hands of the whites and refuse to look to the future. It seems that some of us oldies feel that we can’t afford to give up our enemies.

Enemies are useful. But in this world there are no free gifts and enemies are expensive, both in monetary terms and in terms of being a person.

Any country which engages in a war gets poorer. Britain won the Second World War but it lost the empire which made it rich. As individuals, having an enemy might help to hold us together as a person, but it stops us from developing into the wiser, more creative person that we might have been. Putting our time and energy into hatred and revenge diminishes us as a person. Seeing our enemy as a despised object rather than as a fellow human being reduces our capacity for empathy, and it’s empathy that allows us to leave the narrow confines of our own little world and explore other people’s worlds, and draw close to other people in kindness, generosity and love. Needing an enemy is like needing a smoke or a drink. Fulfilling that kind of need can be comforting at the time, but, in the long run, having an enemy only does us harm.

Dorothy Rowe Friends and Enemies HarperCollins, 2000.