Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Enemy Images in Politics

Since one of my themes is the harm caused by “enemy images,” I can’t ignore our collective backyard, that is, U.S. politics. Talk show host Dev Ulz-Advokit recently interviewed me about this topic:

D.U. What is the harm caused by Democrats and Republicans railing at each other like enemies? Doesn’t it spice up the news a bit?
T.I. Sure, it generates great entertainment, but it doesn’t make a great country. If we didn’t see each other as enemies, we’d listen to the other side’s legitimate concerns and incorporate them in wise policies, instead of simply posturing to make the other look bad.

D.U. But neither party is going to jettison its position on the issues. Why try?
T.I. The object is not to produce homogeneity. A democracy needs varying perspectives because each side brings up points that the other side may need to hear. For example, beneficial government programs need to be checked by concern for costs, waste and fraud. Military decision-makers need voices apprising them of effective nonmilitary alternatives. In the current health care debate, the moral imperative to provide health care for all needs to be balanced with economics and efficiency.

D.U. OK, so dissension is cool. What’s the problem then?
T.I. The problem is tone. Many debates are undermined when the speakers mischaracterize or ridicule the other side and/or its motives. Then more energy is going into attack and defend, than actual substance and problem-solving.

D.U. You heard that everyone: mischaracterization and ridicule are un-cool. But isn’t that the way of the world?
T.I. Maybe we all need to practice a new way. If Republicans and Democrats can’t even discuss the issues productively, how can we expect, say, the Israelis and Palestinians—who have a much deeper, visceral situation to address—to arrive at a peace agreement? Or the various Iraqi factions to chisel out a viable government?

D.U. Right. So is there anything the average Jane or Joe can do, or are you just blowing hot air?
T.I. We all contribute to the climate of the country, so yes, there is plenty an average person can do. Consider your words, watch your tone. Present your ideas without blaming, put-downs or ridicule. Talk to individuals of a different political persuasion from you and uncover their underlying, after-peeling-away-the-layers concerns and hopes.

D.U. And then what? Don’t leave us suspended.
T.I. Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found out their core values were about the same as yours—let me guess—they want security, freedom, fairness, respect and caring? Even if you disagree on how to manifest those values, at least you’ve discovered you’re both humans of the same species who can engage in a constructive conversation.

D.U. Well, thank you, Ms. Idrobo for speaking with me. Now, to our listeners, any dissension out there?


  1. Well said, Tricia. So much of what passes for public discourse really is just points-taking and doesn't move the conversation forward. I would add that our current approach reinforces the notion that there are two potential and opposing viewpoints on any given issue, when the truth is that there invariably are a multiplicity of views. We're asked to take sides and choose between A or B, when neither of them, or aspects of both, may align with our values, experiences and aspirations.

  2. Part of the process of creating/enacting enemy images is dehumanizing. And when you dehumanize, you eliminate the possibility of listening to the other, of discussion, of finding what you may have in common, of seeing them as human beings. And this works both ways too--the conservatives/tea baggers/republicans in this country (choose your term du jour) dehumanize and vilify the democrats/liberals/progressives (choose your term of the day), seeing them as blinded, living in the clouds people always looking for a handout from government. And likewise, the progressives see the conservatives as blinded/living the past/racist/priveleged, etc. The minute you're hearing yourself think "This person is just awful, everything they say is wrong," stop and think about the basic human needs that are driving what they are saying/doing (so long as they're not inciting violence). Listen. Open your heart. We only have one world to live in, all of us, and we have to learn to live together. The more people learn about the destructive nature of enemy images (to individuals and society), the better.

  3. That was a good interview! The debate on health care, and now the "retaliation" of its ultimate passing, is an extreme example of your point. However, this extreme seems to be the trend now, and once health care isn't hot news, it will be something else. In my opinion, one of the main problems is the "news" programs which do nothing to inform people on the entire issue and instead "report" their conservative views and set that negative tone... and people watch and believe it. Then it becomes their view and their tone when they talk (and fight) about it with others. I think the News Media needs to be more responsible.

  4. Thank you all for your comments, Steve, Elissa and Nancy. I couldn't have said it better! I did have the vitriol of the health insurance "debate" and its aftermath (threats, vandalsim) on my mind as I wrote this. I agree, Nancy, that the media needs to be more responsible. I also wonder how people so easily go along with what they hear. It's clear that we the citizens also need to be responsible to check facts and consider different sides to the issue.

  5. I am really inspired and awed by the wonder of just "being" - this ever-changing universe, and the rhythm of how all this DNA moves about as an enormous interactive, and interdependent, machine. It creates in me a desire to cooperate with others, so that our whole "team" benefits. Without civil discourse, we have only cannibalism. Perhaps this is what attracted me so strongly to the recently germinated Coffee Party. So many of its members feel our country and our psyche have been seriously harmed by divisiveness; many have said they are hungry for respectful conversation about issues that affect us all, in one way or another.

  6. Well said, Tricia. I really appreciate you being out there in the world and talking about these things so thoughtfully, clearly and SUCINTLY!

  7. From Kathy Kidd---Thanks Tricia! Sometimes I think we really want to be informed and because we are not, we dig in and take positions. I think it could potentially be much easier to have civil dialogue if we know what we are talking about. If we are curious and want to see all sides, we would naturally be curious about points of view different from our. Because we are not taught critical thinking and we have been (mis)educated in sound bites, I wonder if some of the frustration and anger is truly at ourselves for not knowing the deeper issues. And also, I think feeling overwhelmed contributes to a sense of helplessness and anger.

  8. Beautiful, Tricia. While it's easy for the media to shine a bright light on those who seek to create divisions and separations between us, and who take actions based on these thoughts, I choose to believe that there is a greater majority of us who see more connection. It's for that majority to speak up, as you have, and become heard. Thank you so much!

    Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge,
    aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 1964.

  9. Thanks, Jo, Weyah2000, Kathy and Terry. Terry, I hope you're right about the majority wanting less divisions and more connection. Love the MLK quote.