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On Enmity

What happens to our hatred when it goes online?

Are you feeling tired, sluggish, or unmotivated? If so, then I suggest kickstarting your year by making a good old-fashioned enemy. The warm, sloppy positivity of your friends and families will only get you so far in today’s cut-throat society, and the necessity of an enemy is something that has long been observed. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes that “an intimate friend and a hated enemy have always been indispensable requirements for my emotional life” and remarks that often, the two can even be the same person. He is, of course, talking about frenemies. Umberto Eco similarly reminds us that an enemy offers a rare opportunity for self-definition, something to push against—a way of demonstrating our own worth. That’s because having an enemy isn’t about them, but about you. 

Given enmity’s rejuvenating properties, it’s surprising that the archive of quotes on Goodreads, itself a repository of online self-help for a particular type of person, showcases only 15,223 opinions about enemies–—there are 255,747 for love—although it’s still too many to glean a single, definitive meaning. A clump of pithy, ironic comments about the use-value of enmity are wetly let down by Abraham Lincoln’s “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Well, no, actually—not according to Freud. So far, so confused. The ambiguity of friendship—so often on the verge of, or paling into, enmity—is a common theme. The experience of a frenemy is described as exhausting; the open hostility from an established enemy, invigorating.

With so many of our emotions uploaded into cyberspace, it’s only natural that we’d find our enemies there, too.

Hatred, hostility—these things are in our blood. The history of the world is the history of enmity. But there’s obviously an extent to which I’m joking when I say make an enemy. The Anthropocene is depressing enough without the addition of more national and international conflict, so I want to be clear that I am not warmongering here. However, it’s also true that the initial glimmering of enmity can be the prelude to valuable, sustained social change: sometimes hating someone or something just feels like the correct and just thing to do—as seen in every Mel Gibson film ever: in The Patriot, where Mel Gibson fights against the evil British, or in Braveheart, where Mel Gibson does exactly the same thing to the evil English. And then, nobler purposes aside, there’s something to be said for the experience itself: the functionality of the enemy, the quick lactic hatred of the heart—the sense that you can’t afford to screw up because they are there, up in the clouds, like god, or in the dead black eye of your phone, watching you and laughing.

That last image is relevant. If, in the past, the meaning of enmity was expressed through excursions to neighboring villages in which tangible, physical violence was meted out, these days, often, our conflict is virtual. With so many of our emotions uploaded into cyberspace, it’s only natural that we’d find our enemies there, too. What does this mean for enmity? 

Nastiness, that’s there, certainly, on the fifth page of the Guardian comment-wars, or someone’s overly acerbic reply on a language forum; in trolling, cyberbullying, and so on. But the feeling of enmity is more concentrated, personal, and intimate than the diffusive aggression of the internet at large. Enmity—the hatred of a single individual, whose identity is abstracted away, transformed into the sounding-board of your own fears and insecurities, a node of animosity—is functional. Following Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which the eternally suffering child protagonist, Ender, is transformed by his struggles with his enemies into the ruthless, cold-hearted general of an entire space fleet, it’s through the enemy that you can begin to know yourself.

The internet caters for the specificity of hatred, too. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat make the experience more accessible than ever. You can nourish your feeling of enmity via a stream of daily updates from a carefully curated group of hated individuals, whose despised lives provide a neat opposite to your own. Online enmity is cleaner, maybe, than the base feuding of the past: a hygienic daily ritual, like brushing teeth, or washing hair. But does this bodiless enmity have consequences in the real world? Or is it lip-service to hatred, enclosing and imprisoning our negative emotions in the prism of the virtual? It’s possible that the enemy doesn’t even need to know that they are an enemy—they simply need to be there, online, a repository for the detritus of our own souls. This is a silent, self-contained activity: the downward scrolling through an Instagram or Facebook feed in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by the internal litany, the thrum of your hatred, which occasionally pauses so as to dip into comedy, the triumphant screenshotting of another’s idiocy. 

As ghouls, hunched over the glowing carapace of the laptop, we try to purge the ghoulishness of our own hearts.

This exercise of feeling is a pensum, sufficient, perhaps, to stave away true disintegration: the all-out public exploration of our worst sides, enmity as spectator sport, the pettiness and triviality of hatred once expressed. The recent exchange of button-metaphors between Donald Trump and his newly acquired nemesis Kim Jong Un is a good case in point—the farce of the virtual exchange becomes tragedy with live, plausible consequences IRL. But most of us only ever choose the silent, online hatred of our peers and acquaintances, as though it’s an amulet against the realization that there are larger forces to hate, our introspection a talisman that protects us from wider social manipulation, the divide-and-conquer tactics of our leaders and politicians. We choose the one-sided secret enmity of the computer screen, an enemy that can be co-opted, rehoused, remade into the jewel of our own solipsism—writing nothing, saying nothing, doing no evil. As ghouls, hunched over the glowing carapace of the laptop, we try to purge the ghoulishness of our own hearts.

This is, of course, a dream. Looking at recent criticisms of Facebook redirecting hatred in the 2016 election, or the role that it has played in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, perhaps the opposite is true. We’ve never been that restrained: the ubiquity of the comment-box is too great a lure, and the protective, wordless remove of the thumbs-up simply a resting-place on the road to vocalization. Enmity, rendered gamelike through this remove into the virtual, is the same as it’s always been, only now maybe even worse. The clean and clinical distance of the internet was a gloss for something else, a kind of emotional hardening—the images chip away at you, a host of digital angels and algorithms feed you whatever you want, and the gap between hatred and actualization gets smaller and smaller.