Democratic societies have an oxymoronic nature: the very freedoms and protections that unite citizens make conflict inevitable. However, it is the right kind of conflict if it is civil, respects the rights of others, and presents ideas and challenges to ensure the integrity of those freedoms. American society does not speak with one voice. Factions emerge and movements arise. If citizens don’t learn how to respect the arguments of others there is no way forward for creating civil debate and discourse.
Often, individuals develop strategies and coalitions to beat or defeat groups or individuals with whom they disagree. In these circumstances conversations or discussions never take place or become extremely difficult because mistrust destroys any possibility of connection.
Adam Kahane coined a word, enemyfy, to describe what individuals do in these circumstances. Enemyfying is “thinking and acting as if the people we are dealing with are our enemies—people who are the cause of our problems and hurting us.” In other situations, people might use different words that are softer and not as divisive: rivals, competitors, opponents, or adversaries.
Enemies connote a very harsh view. People may want to defeat opponents and rivals, but with enemies, their nature is to destroy them. Winning becomes a matter of blaming others for conditions and labeling them as threats to people’s way of life, security, or safety. They say things like “Those people are the reason things are messed up and why our security is at risk.”
The conflict on some college campuses concerning speech goes to levels of enemyfying — speakers and others are portrayed as hostile enemies of society and culture tagged with an epithet of some left or right skew.
Enemyfying others can feel righteous and even heroic. There is little intention of problem solving, and certainly no collaboration. When fragmentation of this nature moves beyond labels, civility evaporates and vitriol increases, which can threaten people and property.
Enemyfying can be arrogant and comforting because it reassures those who categorize others that they are not responsible for the issues or difficulties. Citing and stamping others as enemies is quite simple: “We are right, they are wrong” or “We are moral, they are not.” However, there is a problem.
Complex issues usually do not have simple solutions, nor are one-dimensional analyses the answer. In addition, there is a matter of constitutional rights and people’s right to free speech even if it is foolish, wrong, or irritating.
Enemyfying obscures issues and contexts as well as distorts the challenges society faces. Verbal rock throwing actually destroys diversity — the diversity of thought and ideas — and thwarts any conversation or dialogue with others. Diversity is more than ethnicity, race, and other demographics. It also concerns thoughts and opinions and ideas and interpretations.
Polarization and seeking like-mindedness increases through enemyfying, which limits conversation and results in greater isolation. Alienation is a corrupting influence and a deterrent to finding areas of agreement, if any, or simply understanding the principles and attitudes of others.
Enemyfying is not strictly a conservative or liberal, or a Republican or Democrat, position. It is evident and practiced in both parties, as well as corporate and other private or public sector venues.
People resort to enemyfying because they have not truly developed a position or cannot make their own case. Individuals frequently apply it if they do not have a thorough understanding of issues or cannot state their position articulately. It is easier to simply lash out at others than review and research their positions.
George A. Goens, Ph.D. of Litchfield has authored nine books including the upcoming Civility Lost: the Media, Politics & Education. He served as a superintendent of schools in Wisconsin for 15 years. This op-ed originally appeared on CTViewpoints.org.