‘It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail’. So wrote the American novelist Gore Vidal. This suggests that the human psyche needs an enemy in order to thrive; that it is more natural to compete than collaborate.
At this point in history, we may be forgiven for such pessimism. Trends in religious faith and democratic politics confront us with their animosity to others. Despite age-old injunctions to treat neighbours as we wish them to treat us, we find ourselves jostling for position in a crumbling global order.
In defining our enemies we often focus on a tangible threat of other persons against ourselves. But equally, we might find meaning in an interior, spiritual battle that pitches ‘right’ over ‘wrong’. When the level of collective fear rises, our capacity to accommodate and tolerate may be trumped by reflexive aggression. We ‘defend our values’.
My line of thought in this area emerged from an unusual source: liberation theology. This is a left-leaning Christian idea about freeing the poor from the oppression of the rich. A laudable goal in many ways. But in my interaction with liberation activism, I could see that it fed on confrontation with the evil ‘other’. Its motivation emerged from anger. God favours the lowly and wants to humble the powerful. The powerful must fail.
On the flip side, cynical right wing ideologues identify enemies as those who do not share their ethnic, religious and cultural traits. They want to preserve a carefully constructed identity that cannot tolerate difference. Only the stereotypically conformed can expect to survive the putsch.
History has taught us that the greatest threat to our health and wellbeing is conflict. Millions die in the face of war. We appear to be sliding in a worrying direction.
Human relations are fraught with emotional instability. Can compassion for others trump our inner hankering for their defeat? And, ultimately, can we truly expect to thrive as persons as we seek the demise of others?