There’s a moment in “The Godfather: Part III” when Michael Corleone says to Vincent, Sonny Corleone’s hotheaded illegitimate son, “Never hate your enemies; it affects your judgment.” These may be some of the most useful words in that whole excellent movie series, words that apply to the world and to human interaction generally, perhaps more than ever before in our modern world of politics and social media.
Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on social media, at least when dealing with political and social issues, has seen the face of the problem this aphorism addresses. Anyone who has followed politics has also seen it. We tend to address our issues and disagreements in the real world as though they are zero-sum games—contests in which there can be only one winner and one loser, where any gain by the “other side” is a loss for “our side.” Perhaps as an automatic defense against the distress of having to face our fellow humans in such a contest, we demonize our “enemies.” Unfortunately, this approach quickly becomes counter-productive, because—as Michael Corleone rightly points out—to demonize others, to hate them, impairs our judgment. If we see another person as inherently reprehensible, then to give him or her any ground, at any level, is to seem to reward what we perceive as evil and, given the zero-sum assumption, to penalize the good.
Fortunately, reality doesn’t seem to be a zero-sum game. The universe is messy and complicated; this can be frustrating, because there are few simplistic solutions to real problems, but it is in the aggregate positive, because it means that we don’t necessarily have to take away things from others to have things for ourselves. One of the great insights of economics is the recognition that wealth is not a static quantity, with the only problem to be solved being the best way to spread it around (and, implicitly, how we can each take the biggest chunk for ourselves). Wealth is created. Value is created.
We’ve also seen, if we’re paying attention, that the most successful strategy for creating wealth and abundance is cooperation. Humans are the dominant force on this planet not because of the strength of our muscles or even, in a simple sense, the strength of our brains. Our greatest source of success is that our intelligence is social. We are pack animals, who work together cooperatively to succeed where no individual, however gifted, could do as well. Language, first spoken and then written, has been pivotal to that success. We convey our thoughts, our ideas, our intentions, our feelings to other humans by symbolic means—even to people we will never meet in person, even to people who will live long after we have died. Likewise, we can learn from, and at least partly understand, people we will never meet, including people who died centuries or millennia ago. This is a tremendous power.
But the assumption that, in the exchange of ideas, every apparent disagreement is a debate, or even a battle, is counterproductive. What are the odds that you, reading this now, have a complete handle on the final answers to all questions of substance about morality, about economics, about psychology? If you claim those odds to be significantly greater than zero, then I suspect you’re being dishonest—with me and probably with yourself. I think there are very few people who would be willing to claim that they know everything important there is to know, or even that they know enough that they would never benefit from criticism.
One might naively think that in interacting only via words—only with purely digitized ideas—we might be at our most dispassionate, our most rational, our most cerebral. This doesn’t, unfortunately, appear to be the case. Instead, we seem to find it easier to be assholes when we’re interacting online, when we don’t have to look our interlocutors in the eye, especially when we’re interacting in snippets of two-hundred-forty characters, or in evocative meme imagery. And, as always, when we engage in discussions on issues of great personal and emotional salience, we tend to revert even more readily to an antagonistic stance.
Somehow, in the digital exchange of ideas, we find ourselves able to disconnect from any sense of empathy and reflection, to treat our opponents as most of us would never treat another person who was in our presence, especially if we were being observed by a third person whose opinion mattered to us. Such hostility has long been the hallmark of politics, where emotions flare because the stakes are high, and where status and prestige are such valuable currency that they outweigh (at times) the quality of thought and the validity of ideas. But as we have seen in politics, to assume a dogmatically adversarial stance, in which we demonize our opponents, can lead to the stark choice of either stagnation or totalitarianism.
In Chapter 31 of Stephen Mitchell’s new English version of the Tao te Ching, we find it said of the attitude of a decent man forced to go to war that “His enemies are not demons, but human beings like himself. He doesn’t wish them personal harm…He enters a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if he were attending a funeral.” We would do well to embrace this attitude, even in merely verbal “battles,” by remembering that those with whom we interact are creatures like ourselves. If we can keep this in mind, we might find ourselves reaching states of actual battle less often than we do.
Our criminal justice system is founded on the principle of the presumption innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This seems an excellent way to approach our discussions, in person and even online, especially when we disagree. There are very few mustache-twirling-villain types in the real world, thankfully, but we ourselves are more likely to behave like such villains if we allow ourselves to despise and dehumanize our opponents. When we think of our adversaries as evil, we become capable of committing monstrous evil against them. This is a state that seems worth avoiding whenever feasible.
The very sense of there being an “enemy” is a starting point of self-sabotage. “Us versus Them” thinking leads, with near-inevitability, to conflict, often to real war, and to tremendous suffering. But from a dispassionate point of view—the view from outside, the view from “nowhere”—there is no Them. There is only Us. We have and will continue to have disagreements with one another; it’s an inescapable product of the fact that we don’t know all the answers, and probably never will. Because of this, there will always be the need for discussion, for conversation, and even for measured debate. But when we find ourselves in a state of true antagonism, when we see our opponents as inherently evil, or stupid, or deluded, or willfully blind, then we lose much of our ability to persuade them. After all, how likely are you to listen to the thoughts of someone who holds you in contempt?
Perhaps a good starting point would be for us to try to instantiate a new ethos of courtesy. I don’t mean a set of arbitrary rules of courtly behavior, about which fork to use for your salad and whether to put your elbows on the table or to burp in public. I’m talking about being polite in the way we interact with others—a kind of Gandhian pacifism of discourse, in which we don’t descend to rudeness, to vilification, or to derision, even when others do it to us.
At the very least, though, it would behoove us—if we want to try to approach an ever-greater understanding of reality and a steady reduction in ignorance and confusion—to follow Michael Corleone’s advice and never hate our enemies. A good first step on that road would be not to think of them as enemies.