Who is the Enemy Other?


Council Estate, Paul Cummings, 2009

by Jeffrey Stevenson Murer

In ganging up on housing estates, in racist attacks or inter-state brinkmanship, how does the enemy become the Other? This peculiar purification process requires a narrative and a chance to ‘perform a boundary’. For local and national communities, leaders and politicians alike, it is one way to reinforce our own sense of group identity. Is there another way of feeling secure?

Who is the enemy? With the rise of identity politics it has become rather usual to refer to the enemy as the “other,” yet this begs the question as to how does the enemy become the other?  Framing the question this way affords a number of important considerations, most importantly contingency. By placing attention on the processes and dynamics of becoming, it is possible to see both the self and the other as developing through time; their relationship evolves, changes, and has both a beginning and a potential end. At the centre of these dynamic relationships between selves and others are the narratives that make sense of it all. These narratives associated with large group identity constellations order and prioritize events held in collective memory; they proscribe the performances which constitute the modes of practice of being within the group, and they detail the deeds and sins which came to mark others as enemies.  Taken together, narratives are the means of making sense of conflicts.

Often groups are taken for granted, and yet groups must be made. This occurs in two ways: first, the group must be created. The famous saying attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio perhaps captures this idea best: “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.” Large groups – whether ethnies, nations, classes, races or even status groups – are created within specific historical, social, and economic contexts, and while many theorists have elaborated different conceptions of these processes, one of the most useful comes from Miroslav Hrochwho detailed the dynamics of a large group identity formation in three steps. First there is an academic or perhaps scholarly interest in articulating arguments for a distinct group; second, agitators who are enthralled by the idea of a distinctly separate group engage in the promotion of an origin narrative; and third, these ideas are received, internalized and re-transmitted by so many other people as to constitute a mass movement. The idea must resonate with people; it makes sense of a set of historic, social, political and economic conditions, and as such a new identity is born.

However, the group has to be made in another way as well.  It must be performed on a regular basis.  Identity can be conceived of as a series of recognized performances – wearing certain clothes, eating certain foods, using certain words, or affording trust to certain individuals or small groups. At base, collective membership can be seen as an affordance of trust.  We trust other members of our group, we do not trust the enemy-other. How do we know an individual is a member of our group?  Well, often she telegraphs that information through performances of the everyday knowledge. Is she confident in our space or does she indicate that she does not belong by appearing nervous or apprehensive? Does she know the words to our songs? One demonstrates allegiance by singing, or at least knowing the words to, an anthem, whether it is that of a country or a football team. Generally, people do not know the words to another country’s national anthem, or are likewise unaware of the inside jokes or the ever shifting lyrics of a football chant. These are important performances that mark us as belonging to self or other. At times of conflict these performances can mean the difference between life and death.

However these performances need not only be tied to national or ethnic identity constellations. In many cities across the UK, violence is organized around conflicts based on post-code identity, as neighbourhood boundaries can be riven by familiarity on one side and fear on the other. For many young people identity is linked to which housing scheme one comes from; cross into the wrong scheme and violence is sure to ensue. At this level we can see that everyone negotiates complicated, overlapping large group identities. Each might be characterized by performances that include violence, and each might be overcome by a uniting superordinate identity. Housing scheme rivalries may be put aside when encountering someone from across town; intra-city conflicts may be set aside during a city’s premier league football match; city and regional differences may be put aside when questions of national security arise, and so on. As individuals we move fluidly through these different identities, knowing which performances mark difference and unity in which context.

Fredrick Barth wrote that the important distinction between groups was the performance of the boundary between them, not the cultural “stuff” inside the “centre”. The perpetual performance of a boundary allows the boundary itself to be dynamic, evolving and changing with social, political and economic contours and contexts between the groups. In this way new conflicts or cleavages come to be understood or performed through the existing boundary system. For example, recent conflicts in Nigeria that might best be described as economic in nature and representing an urban-rural spatial cleavage, come to be understood in the reference frame of Christian versus Muslim. It is not that the conflict is born of religious tensions, but rather an economic, resource competition becomes understood, made sense of, in terms of a preexisting frame of reference. All community tensions are interpreted through this fundamental fissure.

In the event that a conflict arises which cannot be made sense of through this existing frame, a new symbolic system of difference will be created. What is at times described as Freud’s conception of the narcissism of minor differences can also be seen as the search for a marker of distinction that can function as the basis of exclusion. Farhad Dalalsuggests that one of the most immediate, and perhaps easiest mechanisms by which to create a sense of unity and cohesive identity is through exclusion. That is, we need not describe what is the basis of our commonality but for the fact that we are not the excluded. Thus, rather than search for some element around which “we” could construct a superordinate identity, “we” only need to find some element which creates a common “them.”

In times of crisis or threat all untrustworthy elements must be expelled from the immediate environs of the group-self. Those elements which are seen as the source of the tension or the crisis are to be immediately excluded and expelled, as well as any others who support, abet, sympathize, or resemble those enemy-others. It is in these moments that it is possible to see new boundaries of a newly formulated group-self being drawn. It could be inclusive in the sense that groups previously seen as different are welcomed into a newly formed larger group-self in distinction from other others. Or the formulation may split off elements previously seen as constitutive of the group self, but now seen as familiar foreigners. A new narrative will arise describing these newly split off elements as “always” being other. Performances become closely scrutinized, lest any “enemy” element remains or infiltrates the newly constituted group-self.

This split-off former self –  the familiar foreigner – is known intimately as having once been part of the self, and is yet foreign enough to no longer remain within the newly defined boundaries of selfness. In such a moment we can see how collective identity is a dynamic process of dual ascription. I demonstrate my membership through specific performances demonstrating my knowledge of collective practices and norms, mastery of narratives, and awareness of conceptual boundaries. However, there is a second component in which the collective audience judges my performance. It might be deemed inadequate, insufficient, or inappropriate as the terms of evaluating sufficient membership performances change.  One can imagine an example from Nazi Germany, when the determination of German-ness changed.  SA storm-troopers may have approached what they saw as a ‘Jewish house’; the German speaking, secular, non-religious, middle-aged man living inside responds to the intimidating mob outside of his house, by saying “no I am German, and I can prove it from the medals awarded to me during the Great War.”  The SA troopers reply: “That does not matter any longer.”

One can imagine a similar situation for the grand children of Algerian immigrants in France. This third or even fourth generation has grown up in France, speaks French, and carries a French passport. Yet, their practice of Islam or even having a last name that indicates a familial link to the Maghreb, may be enough for others to not see them as belonging to the French national collective. Those of mixed identities – those who may be bi-lingual, or of mixed parentage, or who have adopted and internalized a new set of collective performances and memories as their own – may face especially intense scrutiny in times of crisis or threat. They must demonstrate their membership sufficiently, to the satisfaction of the collective.  Just who will be the arbiter and judge of those performances becomes a matter of power and politics.  For many caught in such situations, the only sufficient performance of membership is to kill the other within. A young man, who considers himself Yugoslavian, because one of his parents is Croat and the other Serb, can only demonstrate his Croat-ness by killing a Serb – killing both the enemy out with and the “enemy” within.  To not do so, demonstrates that he is not sufficiently Croat, and therefore must be killed as if he were a Serb. This was very frequently the case during the atrocities in Rwanda. Young members of the Interahamwe challenged ‘suspicious’ Hutus to kill Tutsis. If they did not, then they too were killed as being the enemy-other.

In the act of splitting off the familiar foreigner, the new self becomes pure. That is, all that was weak, troubling, defective, alienating is expelled from the collective self in the act of splitting. What is left is similar to what Melanie Klein described as the paranoid-schizoid position within individuals. In moments of crisis, Klein described how individuals would move into this defensive position by creating a world of all good and all bad, often with the self as the all good and the other embodying the all bad. Similarly, collectives project onto the other all that they might see as bad within themselves. In this way the other is a fantasy of all that is evil, bad, or defective within ourselves. The self knows the other intimately, for he is a mirror image – the evil twin – of the self.  It is not the case that self is ignorant of the other, is in some need to encounter the other. Rather, the self created the other.

It is not the boundary between the self and other that needs to be addressed to minimize conflict between the two groups. Rather, it is questions of security within the self – existential, ontological security – that must be addressed. Julia Kristeva describes this relationship with the abject-other – the enemy-other – as a prohibition, as a crisis, that requires the constant creation of a rigid boundary characterized by violence to maintain the separation of self and other, lest the self slip into the other. The newly created sense of self, accomplished through the act of excising the familiar foreigner, lives in a constant state of anxiety regarding the fear of the return of the repressed – that the excised familiar foreigner will return and infiltrate the newly purified self. Only when the self is secure enough to encounter others, to engage across a boundary not marked by violence – although a boundary of performance may still exist – can it be possible to reconcile with the enemy-other.

As Kristeva puts it, it is not seeing the self in the other, for the other is the self inverted. Rather, she encourages us to see the other in the self.  To end the conflict the self must see a complicated, multi-dimensional, bad and good other, that is similar to a complicated, multi-dimensional, good and bad self. It is only through the parallel abandonment of an all-bad other and an all-good self, that a new, more complicated, and thus less violent relationship can begin to develop. The American cartoon character Pogo famously quipped: “we have met the enemy and he is us.” This all too often describes collective or communal conflict; the enemy is our own worst nightmare: ourselves in crisis.

The way forward is to address the underlying conditions that contribute to the sense of crisis in the first place. Further, it is important that third parties or other negotiators do not create “solutions” that prevent dynamic and fluid change, by permanently or rigidly separating groups. Groups in conflict have not always been in conflict, even if their narratives about themselves say so. The danger for politicians, policy makers, scholars, and analysts alike arises when we focus too narrowly on one identity constellation at the expense of others. This essentialising act, reducing complex individuals to only one aspect of their identity, precludes an important route out of violence and conflict: our own ability to negotiate complicated, and at times competing, collective identity constellations. It is a process that has no end, and is the one that makes us human.

Piece originally published at Open DemocracyCreative Commons

About the Author:

Jeffrey Stevenson Murer is the Lecturer on Collective Violence at the University of St Andrews. He was recently the Principal Investigator of the British Council-funded European Study of Youth Mobilisation, which examined the motivations of young people involved in radical political and social movements.