In a series of posts, I am going to present excerpts from essays I have written for my upcoming Atlas of Prejudice book. The current one focuses on the concept of the enemy and how it is created in our psyche.
Grab a handful of sand. Let it run through your fingers while you watch the glittering grains fall towards the ground. If you look carefully at the pile that forms underneath, you will notice that each one has its own unique shape and texture. And yet when you think of a beach, your mind would most likely picture a single, uniform yellowish area. This is why the most common way to describe sand is to refer to it in singular, even though we are consciously aware that it’s not a single object.
If the grains of sand had a mind on their own, they would definitely describe us as prejudiced bigots. With a little bit of luck, few of them could even appear on national television and a random non-profit organization would start a media campaign aimed at raising awareness about this horrible injustice, Describing humanity is a similarly ambiguous task. It is further complicated by our amazing ability to constantly unite in groups and divide as individuals according to race, religion, nationality, ideology, sexuality, gender, lifestyle, profession, mood, the list is endless…
The desire to surround oneself with like-minded people and unite against a common enemy is hard-coded in the human psyche. In the mind of a small child, those social alliances may be based on something as simple as preference for certain type of food. If Billy and George both share a passion for chocolate and can eat a whole jar of it in less than a minute, their sister Annie, who frowns in disgust from the other side of the room, would most likely be perceived as a crazy weirdo who has no idea what she’s missing out. After several futile attempts to convert her into the one and only true faith, she will be declared an infidel and left at the mercy of her demons.
If that sounds funny, just picture the same scenario involving adults and replace chocolate with something really serious. It probably won’t take you a long time to imagine a plane crashing into a skyscraper or a crazy idiot shooting teenagers at a summer camp.
Just like Billy and George, most of us are aware of the way we choose our friends. What usually escapes our analysis is the way we choose our enemies. Very often, the enemy is not an individual or a group that represents a real, palpable threat but a fictional character we created ourselves, so we can reinforce our beliefs and hide our insecurities. Once developed, such a character can be easily turned into a label which can be stuck randomly to anybody. It can even be used to dehumanize an individual to such an extent that it could morally justify his humiliation, segregation, persecution, subjugation and even extermination in the name of the greater good of the society.
You may have occasionally heard the poetic advice to keep your inner child safe within you as you dive into the deep waters of adulthood. Well this is one of the cases in which it would be far more preferable to kick the little bastard and its infantile concepts of friends and enemies out of the submarine. You may lose an illusion or two but you will save a lot of lives in the process.