I have come to understand, to my deepest surprise, that there are people out there I just don’t like. It’s nothing personal. It’s more like an allergy. Some people are allergic to wheat. They don’t actively conspire to harm the wheat industry. They just can’t have wheat in their food. So they keep a distance.
Similarly, I don’t wish harm on the people I don’t like. I just can’t have them around. It’s an allergy.
Or so I tell myself. Yet, I feel bad about feeling this way. Shouldn’t I strive to be everyone’s friend? Shouldn’t I accept each person regardless of their foibles? Welcome them and value their company?
After all, I’m not thinking of cartoon villains here. This is about regular people, the sort of people that have redeeming qualities. They’re not evil. They just happen to be the living embodiment of a party foul. Arrogant people. Insecure people. Dogmatic people. Superficial people who love of cheap jokes and expensive clothes.
Or the worst: shallow people who have this utterly toxic combination of stupid-smarts.
I’ve tried to be friends with many such people. Like some lame superhero. Call me Captain Magnanimous.
It just doesn’t work.
It’s like wearing someone else’s shoes. It feels weird. So I just avoid those people now. I don’t try to justify my repulsion. I don’t try to apologize or overcompensate anymore.
I’d like to think that this mild detachment is better than just declaring war on such people, calling them my “enemy”. What does that lead to? Argument? Provocation? Unnecessary drama? I’m not interested in settling someone’s hash.
Yes, mild detachment and simple avoidance is best, I think. I’ll gladly help such people if they ever have a flat tire. I’ll give them advice if they ever ask. After all, the Golden Rule still matters. So, too, does this line from Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband:
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.
Here’s my only problem: this attitude towards others, while noble, extends to many other things I dislike. And while I think it’s both good and morally-just to not wage war on normal, imperfect people, there are other things that I should fight against.
Anger Motivates. Rivalry Unites.
Do sports bring lots of people together? Yes and no. Yes, in the literal sense that it does bring a lot of people into a stadium for the same reasons. But it does not bring people together in a figurative sense. Not at scale. My experience is that sports fans don’t invite fellow fans into their tailgate party. These fans don’t get to know each other as they sit side-by-side in the stands. These fans hardly talk to each other. They’re just friendly strangers.
Unless the topic of their common rival pops up. Then they talk. It’s the only thing that gets these people to really connect. Anything that gives people a chance to boo will give them a chance to bond.
This is what really draws people together in sports. People feel a certain joyful catharsis in having someone or something to cheer against. That feeling can scale to broad groups. Such is the power of rivalry.
Naturally, culture being what it is, you can find rivalry in just about everything. Some people believe climbing Mount Everest isn’t a real achievement; climbing K2 is. In the culinary world, whole regions of the United States are divvied up on the basis of their barbecue preferences. (I, for one, will gladly stand with the vinegar-base over the tomato-base any day.) Meanwhile, in technology, there’s Apple versus PC; the only winners are the marketing departments.
These preferences come from very simple, ultimately-random things. As I wrote before, this is what makes our brain a recommendation engine. Early preferences imprinted by our unique combination of age, place, tradition, and peer examples funnel us toward future preferences that we think are somehow deeply individualized and wholly unique. They aren’t.
Regardless of origin and reason, it feels great to cheer against something. It feels even better to fight against something. This is concerning.
Fighting The Good Fight
I sometimes feel uneasy when I read Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War. This is because I regularly avoid the very first strategy: DECLARE WAR ON YOUR ENEMIES.
What enemies? I see no enemies. As I wrote at the start, even the people I dislike are not my enemies, per se, and I try my best to not make them my enemies. That’s … undignified.
And short of having strangers put on a villain’s costume (i.e., team uniforms), I cannot actively strive to see someone else lose. I don’t want anyone to lose anything. I’m here to help people. That’s why I write this stuff.
So again, reading Greene’s book can be a strange experience. It is the second-yet-final book I’ll feature from his fantastic oeuvre and it is an acquired taste. One that you should acquire. Because you should fight. We should all fight.
Consider the following, emphasis added:
Focus on an enemy. It can be someone who blocks your path or sabotages you; it can be someone who has hurt you or someone who has fought you unfairly; it can be a value or an idea that you loathe and that you see in an individual or group. It can be an abstraction: stupidity, smugness, vulgar materialism.
Greene does this often in the book. He expands the potential target of the 33 Strategies towards underlying weaknesses of humanity and culture. This is vital. Otherwise, I’d ignore this work as an ersatz rendition of Machiavelli’s The Prince. But Greene is better than that. His work is richer, more helpful.
Consider what happens when we don’t declare an enemy:
Do not listen to people who say that the distinction between friend and enemy is primitive and passe. They are just disguising their fear of conflict behind a front of false warmth, to infect you with the vagueness that inflicts them.
This is reminiscent of the chorus to a 90’s country song by Aaron Tippin: You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
That song makes me roll my eyes. Gimme a break. And that specific lyric can move people to tired, jingoistic pretense really, really fast. All the same, my reaction proves Greene’s point: this attitude of “friend and enemy” does feel primitive and passe to an over-thinker like me.
The Gift Of A Proper Enemy
Nonetheless, we have enemies. I’m not here to characterize them as people. For me, the real enemies are (usually) not individual. They are universal. The philosophers of old would identify them as ignorance, indulgence, arrogance, greed, gluttony, laziness, envy, and everything else that violates the universal moral code.
That’s easy enough. But still a bit too broad. So I’ll go a step further. For me, this eventually narrows down to the enemies I really like to fight against: bureaucracy, bad management, mass media advertising, complex policy, commercialized public research, and deviled eggs.
That’s still really broad, though. I hardly have a firm stance on these things. I don’t really have a response, either. I just don’t like them. Someone could ask me What are you going to do about it? and I wouldn’t have an answer.
All the same, passion is as much about the negative as it is the positive. And for those who want to make their passion their work (and vice versa), a very good pathway is to pitch battles against the things we don’t like. Frankly, few people care what we love. That doesn’t spark much interest. But what we hate has tractable interest. What we hate not only drives us, if we fight constructively against it, but it drives others, too. People see what you really stand for when you say what you won’t support.
This is why Frank Luntz was right when he gave the formula for conveying a message. As I wrote about when studying his fantastic book, we should spend 50% on the problem, 20% on the solution, and 30% on the outcome. Why? Because that 50% is about the thing that you dislike and others will be attracted to that dislike more so than the rest of your message.
Consider the line from Greene:
Enemies bring many gifts. For one, they motivate you and focus your beliefs.
My favorite writers, thinkers, businesses, and artists all have an enemy. Not people, but things. Base tendencies against the classic moral code.
It takes tremendous courage, I think, to state those enemies up front. It takes a lot of work, practice, false starts, self-correction, a moral compass, and deep thinking to forge that courage into something that’s righteous and productive. I get nervous about that because we can veer quickly into dogma and orthodoxy.
But if we can do this right, a book like 33 Strategies of War can be invaluable. Not because we should go pick a fight. Because we should make a difference. A positive difference.
Image from Wikimedia Commons