The Express

Saturday, 02 April 2011 11:24

The Express

The advantage of having an enemy

Dorothy Rowe

Everyone wants to have friends because good friends make life worth living. However, many people need to have enemies because having an enemy can give them lots of advantages.

Perkins and Co was a small firm employing 35 people. When Janice went to work there she found her fellow employees pleasant but no one was particularly friendly. They all just seemed to arrive in the morning, do their work and go home. Occasionally they chatted about the weather or last night's television but they were impossible to get to know. Janice felt lonely, but at least she went home to her husband. Mrs Fraser in accounts went home only to her cat.

Then Mr Perkins, the owner of the firm, sent around a memo. He was going to retire and his son Oliver would take over the running of the firm. Oliver had been working for some top organisation in the USA. Now he was going to make Perkins and Co a firm for the 21st century.

Or so he said. That was in his first memo. Others followed with hints of possible redundancies but with no mention of compensation. Again by memo Oliver changed the staff's methods of working without once asking their advice. When he did venture out of his office he spoke to people in a very jolly, condescending way which put everyone's back up. He offended Mrs Fraser by calling her Gladys without first asking her permission. He even ended the firm's practice of buying tea and coffee for the staff and ordered them to provide their own.

All this in the first week, and by the end of the week the whole atmosphere of the place had changed. People had begun to talk to one another, keeping each other up-to-date with the latest of Oliver's moves. When two juniors were sacked rumours of major redundancies and a possible take-over swept the place. As the weeks passed there were more and more whispered conversations over coffee and people started having lunch together. People who had never socialised together began phoning one another at home just for a chat. It was all very scary but in some way delicious. They had all come together because now they had a common enemy.

The great advantage of a group of people having an enemy is that it strengthens the bonds between people. Friendships blossom. The threat of Hitler brought the British together in a way that nothing else ever had, and left many people looking back at the war with great nostalgia.

An enemy gives us other advantages. People who feel inadequate and unacceptable and/or believe that it is wrong to praise yourself feel a surge of confidence in their own virtues as they criticise the sins of their enemy. Before Oliver there were always grumbles about who was responsible for what. Who should have seen that the copy paper was about to run out or that a window needed repairing? Now everyone knew who was responsible. It was Oliver. They could blame him for everything.

Even better, they could put on to Oliver all the anger and resentment which they ordinarily carried around inside them. Janice was surprised at the vehemence in her voice when she talked about how inconsiderate Oliver was. She realised that she was expressing the anger she felt for her mother-in-law who was also inconsiderate and condescending to her but about whom she could not complain to her husband. Many of the women in the group saw Oliver as the representative of all the men who had treated them badly, while many of the men saw Oliver as the embodiment of their father and all the teachers who had punishing them unfairly. Mrs Fraser started to develop the belief that Oliver had selected her for special persecution. She had no family and few friends, and often felt horrendously lonely when she thought of how there was no one in the world who ever thought about her. With Oliver as her enemy she knew that at last someone somewhere was always thinking of her.

There was a deeper reason for the chorus of complaint against Oliver and this came from the belief in the Just World that many of the staff held.

Most of us are brought up to believe that we live in a Just World where, ultimately, good people are rewarded and bad people punished. All religions teach that we live in a Just World, and differ only in how they each define good and bad, rewards and punishments. Many people who would say that they are not religious feel that the Just World must be true, otherwise they would find life unendurable. Many people believe that, if they do their job properly, look after their family and friends, pay their taxes, and behave in a socially correct way, they will get their just rewards of a comfortable life, with their loved ones safe and their future assured.

Whenever a disaster occurs we ask ourselves, 'Why, in the whole scheme of things did this happen?' There are only three answers to this question - it was my fault, it was someone else's fault, it happened by chance. However, in a Just World nothing happens by chance. Believers in the Just World have to choose between, 'It was my fault' and 'It was someone else's fault.' Choosing 'It was my fault' leads to depression. Most people choose 'It was someone else's fault', and immediately look for someone to blame. One great advantage of having an enemy is that the enemy can be blamed for the failure of the Just World to deliver its deserved rewards.

Thus, in the eyes of many of the staff Oliver ceased to be a stupid man who did not know how to manage people and became the nemesis which was going to rob them of everything they had worked all their lives to achieve. The more frightened they became of Oliver the less they could see him as an ordinary man and the more as a Darth Varda figure hidden behind a mask. No one spoke to Oliver unless they absolutely had to.

Now the staff began to experience the disadvantages of having an enemy. Having an enemy is like smoking or drinking. The advantages are immediate and very pleasant, the disadvantages come later and are horrendous. The staff started to feel trapped. The only way out seemed to be to leave their jobs, but that meant losing a great deal. So they stayed trapped.

There was another way out but that required much courage and thought. They could talk to Oliver and get him to talk to them. They would then have to decide whether Oliver was really trying to harm them or was, however ineptly, trying to help them by improving the business. If it was the second they would have to agree compromises with Oliver. To do all this they would have to take responsibility for themselves.

Taking responsibility for ourselves means being able to size up a situation in terms of advantages and disadvantages and to decide what is best for us in the term. I worked in the NHS through the turbulent years when the Thatcher government tried to turn a service into a business, and so I've been through many situations like the staff at Perkins and Co were experiencing. Some of my closest friends now were colleagues who shared those turbulent times with me and I value their friendship, but I've decided that the delights of having an enemy are just not worth the trouble.

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe's latest book Friends and Enemies will be published by HarperCollins on September 11.