The Modern Survival Guide #40
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But that isn’t to say that other people don’t contribute —in fact, a lot of my ideas are formed in direct opposition to others. Coincidentally, in this edition we’re talking about enemies.
In 1988, Georgy Arbatov, a Soviet Union expert on the United States, said to a US counterpart,
“We are going to do a terrible thing to you. We are going to deprive you of an enemy.”
And they did. And it was.
The simple truth is that people need enemies.¹ We need opposition in order to better define ourselves. It’s tempting to view this statement as a depressing indictment of humanity, but it doesn’t have to be; it’s just a statement of fact. Think about this in terms of a narrative — heroes need villains just as much as villains need heroes; each is defined by the other. Similarly, people are defined by what they oppose as much as by what they support.
By extension, you need enemies. For this article, I’ll explain why I think that’s the case, what an enemy is, and what you ought to do with your enemies.
Why You Need Enemies
Life is not simple. People are not always wise. People are not always good. It is impossible to know everything. And some choices have seriously bad consequences. These are the assumptions that we will be working with for the duration of this article. Dispute them if you will, but they seem reasonably well-entrenched and self-evident to me.
If you put these points together, the inevitable conclusion is that at some time, in some place, someone will choose a course of action that is inimical to you. Your reaction to that event is what is important here, because it says just as much about what you are and what you stand for than it does about what they are and what they stand for.
Who you choose for your enemies should therefore be entirely dependent on your own moral, ethical, and philosophical principles. That’s kind of a mouthful, but what it really means is that you are choosing how you want the world to be, at the most fundamental level, and then identifying those people who are actively trying to make it something else.
This, then, is the function of an enemy: they force you to identify and defend your worldview. They provide focus and a target for effort. And they prompt you to build cooperative frameworks in opposition to them. Enemies are important because they are a call to, and inspiration for, action.
What is an Enemy?
Now, with all this in mind, it’s important to realize that not everyone you disagree with will become an enemy — most of the time you’ll have an opponent instead. So what’s the difference?
Well, it all comes down to degrees of opposition. An opponent, for the sake of this discussion, is someone whom you oppose on a particular issue but who does not threaten your core livelihood, bedrock morals, and/or philosophies.
An enemy, on the other hand, is someone who actively threatens at least one of these things, does so in the knowledge that they are acting in opposition to you (or at least to those things which you consider important), and whose actions are to your detriment.
It’s easy to think about this in terms of politics, if that helps (although this certainly isn’t the only context where it applies). For example, Republicans and Democrats are not supposed to be enemies. They are supposed to be opponents. This is because they are both supposed to be fundamentally interested in a single core value — the success of the United States of America. For people in their position, this must be their first, foremost, and primary consideration; everything else is secondary or democracy doesn’t work.
In contrast, those who support abortion rights are typically enemies of those who oppose abortion. This is because they are in direct opposition of each other’s core values and there’s not a lot of wiggle room in which they can negotiate. Their only remaining option is to vigorously and unceasingly oppose the other side in defense of their worldview.
This highlights an interesting aspect of the concept of enemies — you can be enemies and be opponents at the same time, with the same people. Which is to say, there are people with whom you will find yourself in opposition on particular issues that compromise neither of your core principles, and in opposition on issues which cannot coexist.
For example, let’s take your racist uncle (we all have one). On matters concerning race, you (assuming you are a rational individual) must be enemies with your uncle. Racism and tolerance cannot coexist. You have little choice but to oppose each other without much hope of compromise. On matters concerning your aunt’s birthday cake, on the other hand, you can certainly be opponents if he likes vanilla and you like chocolate.
In this sense, it’s critical to recognize that most of your enemies in life will probably be people you know.² National-level enemies (e.g., the USSR) are pretty rare, and for the most part not your problem. By the same token, though, some of the enemies you make will be people who have no idea you exist; politicians, for example, make literally thousands of enemies without ever seeing their faces, just by endorsing certain policies.
What You Should Do with Enemies
Oppose them as much as possible.
There, that was easy, wasn’t it? Oh wait, it’s complicated again…
By the time someone ranks as an “enemy” in your world, you don’t have much choice in your options. You pretty much have to take action. That’s the first part of the sentence (“oppose them”). Based on our definitions above, an enemy is someone who is out to affect something that you fundamentally value. So with that in mind, you should be prepared to fight for the things that you value that highly — because if you don’t, they will win. The easiest way to lose a game is to not show up. So show up.
Now we get into the second part of the sentence (“as much as possible”). What do I mean by “oppose them?” What do I mean by “fight?” Well, it’s important to recognize that this does not have to be and in most cases should not be violent. We live in a democratic, pluralistic society with laws and regulations, and all of those things are more important in most cases than solving your issues violently.
Indeed, you have a whole host of opposition options as a member of the modern world. You can protest. You can call out your enemies online. You can write editorials or stand on a street corner with a megaphone to decry their actions. You can seek to pass laws against them. You can debate them. You can motivate your friends and family. You can raise money for opposition groups. If your enemies are breaking the law, call the cops (or the FBI, or the FTC, or whoever). If the cops are breaking the law, call the lawyers and the media.
And you can do all this legally, nonviolently, and typically on a schedule that allows you to maintain your livelihood.
However, there are some times when violence is unavoidable. These are cases where that thing that your enemy is intent on doing is going to screw up your ability to survive. Sometimes you have to use violence in self-defense, or the defense of others. This is an incredibly rare situation in the developed nations of the modern world; we have systems in place to resolve most differences without a resort to violence (or at the very least, systems by which an authority figure does your violence for you). But violence is and must remain an option, if only the last option, for dealing with an enemy.
… But Keep it Sane
You are going to have some enemies in life. If you don’t, well… that’s how you know you haven’t actually stood for anything. The enemies you make say as much about you as about them, and similarly your response to your enemies says as much about you as it does about them.
Accordingly, you have a responsibility to stay sane. For the purposes of this discussion, that means it is usually the case that you should act within the bounds of law and social convention. It is usually the case that this will get you further than going outside those laws and social conventions. This is because the people who go outside of the law and social conventions are usually crazy people.
However, there is that old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Sometimes the sanest thing you can do is go right off the rails, particularly in cases where the system of laws and social conventions is explicitly set up in an oppressive fashion.
When reacting to your perception of such a system, though, it is absolutely imperative that you do not trust your own judgment. Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy, after all, and lone actors are very rarely exonerated by history. Instead, in these instances, it is wise to find someone you know is a relatively normal, sane person, and see what they think. Major social changes don’t happen when crazy people throw fits, after all; they happen when normal, everyday people collectively decide that a system needs to change.
And again, violence is very, very rarely the answer. Most of the major modern social changes that have made a positive impact on our world were accomplished through non-violent methods. Going outside the bounds of the law and social convention is not inherently violent; the civil rights sit-ins of the 60s were nonviolent, but illegal, and very successful protests.
Last but not least, sane people do not make all that many enemies — and they certainly avoid making enemies whenever possible. Do not make an enemy of everyone you meet. Do not decide someone is your enemy on a whim. Make enemies with caution, and with due deliberation. If at all possible, try to know who they are. As soon as you start declaring opposition, you become a target; try to know who will be targeting you.
Enemies are a necessary component of life — they give you purpose, they define some of your choices, and they are excellent foils for your operating philosophies. You need them as much as, sometimes, they need you; you will define each other. So stay sane, pick your poison wisely, and figure out who your enemies are. And then stand up.