Enemy Images

Heidi Burgess

Originally published October 2003.  "Current Implications" added in June, 2017 and revised December, 2019


MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Like stereotypes, enemy images are extremely prevalent and problematic in U.S. politics and culture these days.  The left and the right have probably never been so polarized. While we have gotten over our prejudices that discouraged (or legally forbade) mixed-race marriages, we now increasingly disfavor marriages—or even socializing—between people of different political views.More...

In-Groups and Out-Groups

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The term "out-group" refers to anyone who is not in your own group. "Your group" can be any salient identity group: your nationality, your ethnicity, your race, your religion. In conflicts between groups of people, disputants usually view people outside their own group as less good, or in the case of the opposing group, as really bad. The term "enemy image" refers to the same thing. The opposing group is seen as the "enemy," who is inferior to one's own group in many ways.

For example, the enemy may be seen as stupid, selfish, deceitful, aggressive, hostile, or even evil. This perception remains, even if members of the out-group do nothing more selfish, deceitful, aggressive, or evil than do members of one's own group. However, when they are engaged in a serious conflict, people will normally project their own negative traits onto the other side, ignoring their own shortcomings or misdeeds, while emphasizing the same in the other.

Enemy images also involve "scapegoating." It is common for each side to decide that it is the other side (the "enemy") that is the source of all their problems. If only the enemy could be vanquished or eliminated, then those problems would go away.

The extreme form of this tendency is dehumanization, in which members of the opposing group are considered to be less than human. While such a view is unthinkable when people are not involved in a serious conflict, it is absolutely necessary to dehumanize an opponent if one intends to go to war against them. Otherwise, it becomes psychologically very difficult to kill people on the other side. If one is convinced that the other side is bent on one's own destruction, and is less human than one's own group, it is much easier to engage in war, human rights violations, or genocide against the opponent.

A grotesque example of this dehumanization was the Rwandan genocide. As described in a report from the U.S. Institute of Peace:[1]

"An organized campaign of violence was carried out, during which the Tutsi were referred to as "cockroaches" and "the enemy," and Rwandan radio broadcasters exhorted every Hutu to kill Tutsi, complaining that "graves are still only half full." In less than four months, between 500,000 and a million people were killed."[2]

Additional insights into enemy images are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Avoiding or Reversing Enemy Images

The best (perhaps the only) way to avoid enemy images is to keep the parties together, trying to work out their problems. In the case of intractable conflict, this rarely, if ever, happens. Once a conflict becomes escalated and polarized, enemy images are bound to be formed.

But they can be countered. Stereotype-breaking actions or de-escalating gestures are actions that one party can take to prove to their opponents that they are better in character than the enemy image suggests. For example, one party may visit the opponent personally, and be more reasonable, friendly, agreeable, or helpful than the opponent expected. When this happens, disputants are likely to revise their enemy image at least a little, concluding that some members of the opposition are reasonable people, or even that the opponents, in general, are more reasonable than they thought they were.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's first trip to Jerusalem was such an action. No one in Israel thought he would come at all, and when he did, he was much more reasonable and personable than most Israelis had expected. The same was true of the Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev's first visit to the United States. Gorbachev was very warm and friendly toward the American people, and they were captivated by him. This effectively broke down many people's stereotypes of Russians as hostile, cold, and aggressive, and replaced those images with one that was much more friendly and open.

Such overtures can be made by ordinary people too; you do not have to be a world leader to break down enemy images among the people with whom you come into contact. You must simply determine what the other side thinks of you or expects of you, and then do the opposite. If they expect you to be closed to new ideas, then express an interest in listening to new approaches to the problem. If they expect you to be selfish and aggressive, take a nonassertive stance and make a small concession that demonstrates good will and a willingness to cooperate with the other side (see de-escalation). The goal is to contradict the negative images that people usually have of their opponents, and to begin to replace these negative images with more positive ones.

Current Implications

Like stereotypes, enemy images are extremely prevalent and problematic in U.S. politics and culture these days.  The left and the right have probably never been so polarized. While we have gotten over our prejudice that discouraged (or legally forbade) mixed-race marriages, we now increasingly disfavor marriages—or even socializing—between people of different political views.  

In an June 28, 2017, Republican Orrin Hatch spoke out strongly against this polarization:  "How can we expect to engage politically with members of the opposing party if we don’t even interact socially with one another? Like limiting our media consumption, only associating with those who hold our same values and opinions distorts our perception of the other side. It has an “othering” effect so severe that Republicans and Democrats — freedom-loving men and women who share the same country and many of the same values — increasingly see each other as enemies. In the spirit of civility, we would all do well to make friends with members of the opposing party." (Sen. Orrin Hatch: "I Am Re-Committing to Civility" Time. June 28, 2017 (http://time.com/4835019/orrin-hatch-civility-politics).

Scapgegoating, as described in this article is also rampant.  President Trump is blaming President Obama particularly, and "liberals" more widely for practically all his and the country's problems. Democrats, similarly, believe that it is the Trump administration and his followers who are to blame for the cascading problems besetting the United States.  They are unwilling to consider the possibility that their actions, too, could have contributed to the struggles we now have.  

This "othering" of "the enemy" is not just going to prevent us from solving any of our pressing problems--it is going to make effective problem-solving simultaneously impossible--and desperately needed. 

Both this article and the linked article on Stereotypes and Characterization Frames  have suggestions about ways such negative stereotypes can be combated.  It is incumbent upon everyone who wants a safe, secure America (or any other country!) to enact such measures wherever possible.  Please consider the end of Orrin Hatch's June 28 editorial:  "Today, I want to make a personal commitment to exercise greater civility in my day-to-day interactions with fellow Americans; I hope you will join me in doing the same." ((Sen. Orrin Hatch: "I Am Re-Committing to Civility" Time. June 28, 2017 (http://time.com/4835019/orrin-hatch-civility-politics/).

--Heidi Burgess, June, 2017, revised December, 2019.

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[1] Rwanda: Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide. United States Institute of Peace Special Report. Available online at http://www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/early/rwanda1.html. (Accessed September 20, 2003.)

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Enemy Images." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/enemy-image>.

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