Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Maintaining the "Other"--How Clear Solutions Threaten Those Who Need Enemies

This short essay about people who define themselves through opposition to others was prompted by an insightful Krugman column that contrasts climate denial and covid denial.

I'm experimenting with dividing the world into people who need an enemy and those who see problems as the enemy and wish to work together to solve them. The anti-vax movement is an example of how artificial polarization increases as solutions become more clear. In other words, solutions to threats like climate change and the coronavirus are themselves seen as a threat, not only because they might make a Democratic president look good, but also because they strip people of the enemy--the "Other" they need in order to maintain a sense of identity. From McCarthy's communists and Reagan's welfare queen, to Gingrich's liberals and Trump's immigrants, the rightwing has needed to conjure an enemy in order to rationalize its existence, reduce scrutiny of its own failings, and rally its followers.

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The Civil War is the most obvious precedent for viewing one part of the country as the enemy. Texas politicians still occasionally revel in the thought of secession. But in the search for precedents, we need look no further than ourselves and our own development as individuals, growing up through periodic stages of rebellion against parental authority. Adolescents, in particular, often need to define themselves by opposition to the parental "Other." Under the right conditions, we're able to grow beyond that stage of resentment, gain autonomy and achieve a sense that our lives are ours to lead. But the road to maturity for humans is long and easily delayed or blocked altogether. Reaching a point where people can "work together" to solve commonly held problems, unfettered by lingering resentments, is not easy.

Sometimes there is a legitimate "Other" to oppose. During the Vietnam War, the government could be seen as the enemy when it was forcing young men to sacrifice their lives for a dubious cause. But fast forward 50 years to the present, when government is opposed and resented not because it forcefully puts people in danger for no good reason, but because it seeks to save lives, through promotion of vaccinations and mask requirements. 
Some of the need to define oneself by opposition to others comes from political expediency. In the Middle East as an example, might it be that rightwing Palestinians and Israelis, seemingly sworn enemies, actually need each other in order to maintain control of their respective political bases? Any solution to the Palestinian issue poses a threat to the rightwing's means of sustaining political support.

That the anti-government and anti-liberal fervor gained particular momentum in the 1990s suggests the rightwing, stripped of its traditional enemy by the collapse of the Soviet Union, shifted to viewing its own government as the enemy. The depth of that passion gained a raw clarity with the attack on the Capitol on January 6. 

By this logic, liberals will continue to be stymied in their desire to "work together" to solve problems. Climate change and the pandemic are denied by many because they are collectively created and collectively solved. For someone who needs an "Other"--an enemy upon which to dump all that is negative--it is disenchanting to face a situation in which we, collectively and as individuals, are both the problem and the solution. Climate change and the pandemic are potentially powerful prompts for national and global unity, in which we all work together for mutual survival. But "working together" would strip many of a sense of identity and meaning deeply dependent upon opposition.

The need to maintain an enemy, even if it means sabotaging effective, collective solutions, does not eliminate collective action. Politically divided, we still continue to collectively, unintentionally create and exacerbate problems like the pandemic and climate change. The danger is not only that problems will fester and divisions deepen, but that any wisdom and insight generated by the "Other", the rejected half of the country, will be ignored or actively dismissed. Those who work so hard to stir up resentment of liberals are then trapped in their own rebellion, with no recourse but to actively shun the warnings and wisdom of liberal scientists. In this way, a divided nation becomes blinded to real threats.

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