Creating Your Political Enemy
Copyright 2015 by Alan F. Zundel
I’ve caught myself getting angry reading things online. It is always because someone has written something I disagree with, most often something political. Especially when it comes in response to something I’ve written, such as in a FaceBook post.
There have been times when I couldn’t get it off my mind, brooding about it until I could respond and defend my views. Even times when I had trouble sleeping, or paying attention to whatever else I was doing.
How ridiculous! I don’t think anger is necessarily a bad thing, but in this situation it seems pointless. There is no threat or harm done to me by the words I read. Often the person who wrote them doesn’t even know me.
In general I don’t anger easily. And I certainly don’t regard my opinions as the final word on anything or beyond questioning.
So why does anger arise over this?
I had to look into myself to find an answer, to watch the process as it transpired within me to see how it develops. This wasn’t always easy, as anger can arise so quickly. But I think I learned something.
The anger arises most strongly when I feel I am not being heard, that the other person is treating me like a stereotype and assuming things about my views which I haven’t actually expressed. In short, when it seems like he or she sees me as an enemy before they have gotten to know me.
When I sense I am seen as an enemy, my instinct to defend and attack kicks in. My body responds as though I am in danger, with my heart beating faster and my attention narrowing to the threat. I feel like I am being corralled into a box that I need to escape from, and my words become weapons to free myself.
And if I am not careful, I will respond in a way that shows I see the other person as an enemy. Then the response comes back in kind. It escalates, each of us climbing step by step up a ladder of confrontation until we reach the height and one of us must be pushed off and defeated.
But there is no defeat. One of us eventually withdraws from the conversation, but neither of us has changed our minds. And neither of us has come any closer to knowing or understanding each other.
Having seen this, I began to watch for opportunities to change the dynamic. I didn’t have to wait long!
Someone argued against something I had written, and I could feel myself getting pissed. So I was careful to calm myself before responding and to compose thoughtful replies that tried to clarify my views. Having been a teacher for much of my adult life, I thought I could engage in a productive discussion if I kept my tone non-confrontational.
But this didn’t seem to be working, as the other person only became more adamant about his own views. I was beginning to feel frustrated and hopeless about achieving anything productive.
So I changed tactics. I tried to put myself in his place and discern what his concerns were. I took his side and made an argument for the position I thought he was defending. This seemed to change the tone, and rather than arguing further he stated his underlying concern clearly. It was as though he could now be more honest because he felt I was open to what was really bothering him.
As I looked for common ground with him and discussed things we could agree on his responses softened. He conceded that I did make some good points earlier in our back-and-forth.
We were stepping down the ladder instead of up, neither of us wanting to reach the top and push the other off. We were no longer enemies, but two human beings who were opening up to each other. And as we opened up we became more human.
We humans are more alike than we think. The excessive focus on differences—liberal vs. conservative, white vs. black, Christian vs. Muslim, American vs. name-some-other-nationality—is poisoning our world by hardening us into enemies. By buying into this dynamic we actually create the enemies we seek to defeat.
I don’t deny that there are real enemies who mean to do great harm to us (whoever “us” happens to be), and it may be that killing enemies is necessary when the roles have become so hardened.
But in most cases we are not at the top of that ladder, facing a hardened enemy who wants to eliminate us. We are somewhere lower on the steps of the ladder, facing a human being who is, if we could only step down to the level at which we truly see each other, but a reflection of ourselves.