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Ancient humans doing what humans are good at....
Expired · 30th November 2010
Ray Grigg
An insightful article entitled "An Existential Function of Enemyship" recently appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 23/10). The article reports on four studies from the University of Kansas supporting the notion that our common human response to a pervasive anxiety is to fixate on enemies and then to inflate their power as a means of distracting ourselves from the actual source of our anxiety.

The notion exposes a coping mechanism that is both self-deceptive and dangerous. In simplest psychological terms, we find "it is less scary to place all our fears on a single, strong enemy than to accept the fact our well-being is largely based on factors beyond our control. An enemy, after all, can be defined, analyzed and perhaps even defeated." Such an enemy can also be invented by the need to transfer attention from a serious problem to a minor one.

The "factors", of course, don't have to be "beyond our control", we just have to believe that they are – a belief that is becoming more prevalent in a globalized world with increasingly complex trade, finance, technology, corporate structures and environmental challenges.

If the notion of "enemyship" is correct, we certainly live in an age with enough anxiety to generate the needed enemies. The trauma of two World Wars segued into the Cold War, the communist threat and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Now the endless complications of globalization are combining with innumerable environmental threats, many of which are serious enough to create major anxiety.

Ironically, the source of this anxiety is the comfort provided by our materialistic affluence. It is creating both the actual and looming threats of pollution, resource depletion, energy shortages and the foreboding shadow of climate change. And all this is exacerbated by a global communication system that is connecting everyone to everywhere with instantaneous intensity – "ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate" is the latest expression to describe this powerful and inescapable process.

The notion of enemyship is amply evident around us. The jihad of Islamic radicals against the West can be interpreted as their way of avoiding their own failings by transferring the blame to others, a long-fomenting frustration that has been ignited by the compacting pressure of globalization. A impoverished and xenophobic North Korea nourishes itself primarily by projecting its anxiety to the rest of the world.

The United States seems to be rife with the anxiety that generates enemies – its history contains a long list of them. And because the US is an open and transparent culture, the psychological dynamics are vividly evident. An exaggerated worry about communism and the Soviet Union has recently been replaced by radical Islam and terrorism. The invasion of Iraq was a vivid demonstration of enemyship. China will be the next enemy as its economic and political power ascends and America's wanes.

Enemyship suggests that the most anxious and internally dysfunctional societies are the ones most likely to invent enemies, to cope with their real problems by uniting their citizens against an invented threat. So war, war movies, war images, war heroes and war mythology should pervade those cultures. Outward power and material accomplishment should be more important than introspective wisdom. Mass media coupled with consumerism should feed this process.

The Olympics use the same psychological dynamics of enemyship in a less dangerous way. The therapy of mock warfare is enacted in the competition of athletes and the feverish support of national teams – the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler were openly described as an antidote to the grim economic recession that was sobering the world, an anxiety release that was supposed to be calming.

The most worrisome attribute of enemyship, however, is that it is maladaptive – it creates difficulties rather than addressing them. Consider the complex problem of global warming and climate change. Deniers have responded to this threat by imagining conspiracies, secret agendas by cabals of scientists conspiring to reorganize the world to meet some politically socialistic end. The reality is that scientists are inherently skeptics and science is basically apolitical. Against an onslaught of unrelenting supporting evidence, the main accomplishment of deniers has been to stall initiatives that would mitigate the effects of a process that could be globally cataclysmic. Unfortunately, such delays in remedial action merely creates an exponential rise in the preventative costs and environmental consequences.

Like the feared feed-back loops that could accelerate global warming into an unstoppable process, deteriorating environmental conditions could do the same to human conflict. As the ecological normality of the planet deteriorates, human anxiety will increase. Then the dynamics of enemyship could intensify political, economic and cultural tensions, amplifying disagreements from bickering to hostility. A world of widespread environmental anxiety would be a more volatile place.

We are already experiencing the precursors of this volatility. Tensions are rising on issues relating to oil, coal consumption, species protection, ocean fisheries, rare earth metals, nuclear proliferation, currency values and refugees. Water is looming as a primary source of insecurity and anxiety. Rich countries are "invading" poor countries by buying farmland to secure food sources. Carbon emissions and all their complex effects on the atmosphere, oceans, economies and human well-being are going to become increasingly prominent as a source of tension and conflict.

In a world that is likely to become increasingly tense and anxious, perhaps an awareness of enemyship will encourage the restraint, diplomacy and co-operation we will need to live together peacefully.