How do we recognize who our enemies are? We may desire to be friendly to and on good terms to everyone, but sometimes this is not possible. To the extent that we are honest about our thoughts and feelings, our identities, our longings and our histories, there are some people who will feel us to be kindred and others who will fear us. There are some people with whom it is easy to be friends. All we have to be is ourselves. If we are people who are generally kind and thoughtful to others, we will have as our friends anyone who feels that we listen when they talk, or who feels comforted and encouraged by our presence and attention. If we are people who are intelligent and well-read and knowledgeable, we will find ourselves getting along with those who appreciate knowledge and spirited, intelligent conversation. But at the same time, any revelation about ourselves will also give us enemies. If we are Jewish, for example, we can expect to find enemies on the grounds of anti-Semitism. If we are American, we can expect that those who are hostile to America and its behavior in the world will single one out as a target of abuse and invective on those grounds. While I would never think to blame a Chilean for Pinochet’s violence, I met quite a few Chileans who blamed me for Bush and his cowboy attitude in the Middle East.
How is it that we choose our enemies, or how our enemies choose us? There are a great many people with whom we can only be on friendly terms with if the ground of our interactions is limited in some fashion. For example, if I am friends with people whose viewpoints are far to the left of my own, we can only be on friendly terms if politics is off the table, because while I may disagree with their own point of view, quite vociferously, they are likely to be intensely offended and triggered by my own. Even fairly close friends of mine have been surprised at just how right of the center my own political beliefs are, when they are usually presented with a friendly and moderate face. When one’s own perspective and approach is very different from those one is always around, as is the case for me, one seeks a great deal of comfort in silence, because one can only be at peace when others simply do not know where one stands. This knowledge leads us to be aware that we are on enemy ground, even while our enemies are not always sure that we are truly and deeply estranged on some ground or another. At times both parties are aware of the politeness that is required to maintain on good terms by avoiding certain subjects of conversation, and at times only one person is aware of it and responds accordingly.
We may therefore often be under the illusion that we are on better terms with others than we truly are. People may only reveal aspects of themselves if they know or believe that someone is sympathetic to them. For example, my own identity as the survivor of early childhood abuse, and the fact that I have been fairly vocal about it, has made it safe for a great many people to quietly admit to me their own struggles with histories of abuse that they keep far more private. I have been honored and humbled by this trust, and aware of the fact that the world is full of great evil and darkness than many people deal with quietly and mostly alone with a brave face and a stiff upper lip, unwilling to show vulnerability to a hostile or indifferent world. To the extent that others know our histories, know our vulnerabilities, know our longings and our positions, they may feel and think very differently than we do, may think us even to be threatening to their own optimism and positions, and may choose to be polite to us to avoid conflict but not interested in getting to know us deeper or feeling closer to us because of the way that we threaten and challenge them.
But all of this so far has shown mostly how people do not like others because of knowledge. There are times when we simply are not given the chance to show ourselves friendly. Few people would consider finding someone disagreeable because they have some unpleasant things to say about abuse, or because of the darkness they faced from their own sins or the sins of others against them to be a prejudice. That said, when we judge someone before knowing them, that is the very definition of a prejudice. And these prejudices can be many but generally relate to identities. We may be prejudiced against someone because of their gender, their ethnicity, their national origin, their class or social status, the bands that they like, the sports teams they cheer on, the regions of countries that they come from, the accent that they have, their religion, and any other number of qualities. To the extent that we view questions of identity as ways of putting someone in a status of enemy, we hate others without knowing them. And to the extent that we are treated in such a fashion, we too are the victims of prejudice. And often we are both prejudiced against others and victims of prejudice by others.
And though sometimes people who are prejudiced act in a violent or hostile fashion towards those whom they are prejudiced against, most of the time it is those who are prejudiced that are the greatest victims of that prejudice. How is this so? To the extent that we view people as enemies simply on identity grounds, we feel hostility and its negative effects and feel fear and anxiety about those who may have no hostility to us. We resent those who wish to be kind and friendly to us. We are rude to those who would be polite to us. We hate those who would love us. We separate and cut ourselves off from those who would be happy to be our neighbors and friends. It is no loss to have people who are hostile to us far away from us and unable to harm us, but it is a great loss to cut ourselves off from those who would be kind to us and friendly to us and decent with us. For we could have friends and partners and allies and brethren where we instead have enemies and hostile strangers. And we suffer the ill effects of that fear and worry and anxiety and hatred and hostility, while they simply are what they are and do what they do. And yet no one can get rid of our prejudices unless we are willing participants in that process. If others fear us, there is nothing we can do to make them less afraid until and unless they can see our essential lack of desire to harm them. Let us therefore pity those who hate us without knowing us, for we can know that they would love us, or at least appreciate and understand us, if they were not so warped by self-deception. For we too are often self-deceived, and therefore we ought to understand how others are shaped by it as well, even if it leads them to fail to respond to us as we would want.