As a kid in the ‘60s, I learned to duck under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack. As a young man in the ‘80s I got my first taste of social action, working to help educate the public on the folly of nuclear war and the imperative to end the Cold War conflict. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I remember the intense sense of relief, and the joy of anticipating a brighter future. I also became a believer in miracles, of sorts — the kind that come after a lot of hard work.
Now in a different 60s — my own — I’m helping to tear down another wall, this one entirely of America’s own making and on America’s own soil: the wall between liberal and conservative. Like the Berlin Wall, this wall too serves as a symbolic dividing line between two seemingly incompatible worldviews. It too is buttressed by a growing mutual certainty that the other side wants nothing less than the total defeat of its adversary. And it too obstructs and distorts our perceptions, provoking serious miscalculations that could end our democracy as we know it.
But perhaps the most important parallel between our wall and the Berlin Wall is the dynamic that built it: A psychological construct called the Image of the Enemy.
The image of the enemy
The Image of the Enemy is a phenomenon where each side in a conflict sees in themselves the exact same virtues, and in their enemy the exact same vices. Once created, this mirror image becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Convinced that survival requires responding in-kind to the other’s hostile actions, each side manifests behaviors that fulfill the other’s worst expectations. This explains why, in our conflict, both sides claim the mantle of patriotism while labeling their adversary seditionists, and why each can point to credible evidence of the other side’s anti-democratic activities.
Eventually the psychology of the Image of the Enemy undermines trust, corrupts channels of communication, exacerbates tribalism, distorts truth, justifies dehumanization, and finally leads to violence. Clearly, we’ve reached this point. And while it’s legitimate to claim that the violence so far has been mostly one-sided, that obscures a more salient fact: The dynamics of the Image of the Enemy require the participation of both sides, and any outcomes, negative or positive, are owned by all.
So what can we do? Now that we’ve built the wall, how do we tear it down? Here’s one critical lesson from the Cold War that can help.
Humanize the enemy
At the height of the Cold War, citizen diplomacy — efforts outside US government channels to build relationships between the peoples of the US and USSR — helped each side deconstruct their Image of the Enemy by creating opportunities to humanize the “other.” Well-documented though rarely acknowledged, the impact of these efforts changed each side’s perceptions of their adversary and built critical public support for ending the Cold War.
Thankfully, the humanizing spirit of citizen diplomacy is alive and well today, evident in numerous organizations like Braver Angels, Living Room Conversations, and my own Difficult Conversations Project, which takes a deep dive into the art and science of difficult conversations, and how the tools of self-awareness can help us stay present and creative in any interaction.
Having the tools to engage the “other” in a spirit of respect and openness is, in my view, the greatest need of our time. Before I started the Difficult Conversations Project, I set out on a road trip across the country to talk to those who held views different from my own. I discovered the power of listening and genuine curiosity. These simple conversational strategies opened minds. They led to insights on both sides. Most importantly, they created an opening for more conversations in the future.
One obstacle facing many organizations working to bring liberals and conservatives together is the relatively low engagement of conservatives. And no, this is not evidence that liberals are more open-minded. Both groups show equal intolerance of opposing views. The hesitancy of many conservatives to engage, it turns out, may have more to do with perceiving dialogue as a liberal activity — indicating that the very idea of coming together to “talk things out” is itself part of the cultural divide.
While this obstacle can be overcome, it's also an important reminder that most opportunities to connect with the “other” don’t require structured settings or liberal-friendly formats. Unlike citizen diplomacy during the Cold War, where relationship-building required visas, travel, translators, and other complex logistics, our “ideological other” is often a relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker — people we see frequently, if not every day. And that means the opportunity to connect and humanize the “other” comes to us regularly and in the most neutral and mundane settings. To increase participation of everyone, it’s important to be ready, willing and able to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.
At this point you might be thinking, “So we’re successful at humanizing the enemy. Then what? Our differences and divisions will remain.” In many cases that’s no doubt true. But energy no longer invested in sustaining our Image of the Enemy will become available for more creative and collaborative purposes. Fear and antagonism, like other negative emotions, narrow our perspective, force us to miss critical information, and limit our range of responses to not much more than fight, flee or freeze. In contrast, empathy, compassion and other positive emotions broaden our perspective, open us up to new ideas, and encourage novel thinking — potentially leading to new, breakthrough solutions. Solutions that might just seem like a miracle.
Photo by Donnie Rosie on Unsplash