Who is the Enemy?
Fighting Toxic Polarization in an Us vs. Them World

Written by: Andrew Hanauer

The following piece is by Andrew Hanauer, the One America Movement’s President and C.E.O.

From the moment I started doing this work, many people would tell me the same thing: “You know, the One America Movement needs an enemy.”

“Toxic Polarization,” it seems, isn’t a good enough enemy. To raise money, to tell powerful stories, you need a bad guy. Not a system, not a phenomenon. An enemy.

One person even suggested we call ourselves the “I Hate Comcast Group.” Because though we may disagree about many important things, we all hate waiting on hold to get our internet fixed.

As a Christian, I think about this concept a lot. When I look out at the world, I see a lot of brokenness, a lot of sin. And a lot of human beings are acting in ways that are harmful to themselves and to each other. 

That’s a tragic reality of our world: it’s endemic. But that by itself is less compelling than the idea that there is an Evil One – Satan – who has engineered this brokenness and is actively encouraging it. Whether or not that’s true, it certainly is more compelling.

In the US, the battle between good and evil is weaponized, pitting Americans against each other. 

We’re told dark forces are always at work, trying to destroy everything that we hold dear. And no, it’s not only the other side’s political narratives that work this way. Americans on the left and right, for instance, wildly overestimate on average the negative intentions of the other side, a phenomenon known as “motive misattribution.” This lays the foundation for those narratives.

At the One America Movement, we are blessed to work with really smart people who are experts in neuroscience, social science, and peace and conflict issues. One of the things they’ve told us is that if you choose a human enemy—if, for example, you say, “polarization is bad and it’s Bob’s fault!” —you are creating a dynamic that can lead to physical violence.

We agree.

Creating a human enemy violates the core tenets of what we’re trying to achieve in the world. 

Our enemy is not any one human; our enemy is a way of living in the world that tears apart the fabric of societies, communities, and families. “You have heard it said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ Jesus says in the book of Matthew. But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” 

But maybe you disagree. Perhaps you think bad people are bad people, and it’s acceptable for an organization like ours to have human “enemies” whom we blame for the divisions in our country. Certainly, some people are more responsible than others for those divisions. I even complain about those people a lot, which leads my wife to do a lot of smiling and nodding.

I hear you. And so I share one more reason why we refuse to have an enemy, even if it makes it harder to raise money or tell compelling stories where we get to star as the hero fighting against dark forces. 

In my last essay, I talked about treating everybody with respect by speaking the truth to them rather than telling them what they want to hear. We want to hear a story in which we are the good guys and our enemies are the bad guys. What we want to hear is that a scrappy non-profit version of David is about to launch a rock at a powerful Goliath.

But that’s a simplistic fairy tale.

The truth is that the world is messy and full of contradictions. 

The truth is that most people are trying to do right in the world and also are hurting other people whether they mean to or not. 

The truth is that the real world looks nothing like most of the fundraising emails that nonprofits, politicians, and activists send out.

The truth is that Toxic Polarization feeds on our behaviors, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. We could end it tomorrow if we chose to. 

We would have to intentionally choose to be more curious, to learn more, to experience other people’s lives, to talk less (and smile more!), to put down our phones, to pick up a shovel or a paintbrush, and to get to work serving others. We should also stop treating politics like a sport that we’re trying to win and instead, start treating our neighbors like human beings who deserve dignity and respect.

We change the world by how we act in the world. How we are, how we live, how we serve. None of us live up to those ideals all the time. I sure don’t. I don’t need enemies – I am my own worst enemy most of the time. 

But we can do better. Let’s choose that. And then let’s see what kind of change we can make in the world.

The One America Movement is a registered 501c3 non-profit. Please donate today to support our mission to build a united American society by eliminating toxic polarization.

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