The Culture Wars and the Distinction between Friends and Enemies


Brad Littlejohn, President of The Davenant Institute, has an insightful post this morning on the friend/enemy distinction and how we should operate in the public square.

He begins by asking, “What does it mean for someone to be an enemy (not merely a personal enemy, but the enemy of my community in a just cause, or the enemy of the truth itself)?” He answers:

It means someone whom I am bound to oppose and resist; someone whose every weakness I must seek to discover, whose every misstep I must be alert for and ready to exploit; someone for whom I cannot afford to entertain fond feelings or show mercy, at least as long as they are an active threat.

It is someone whom I must assume is similarly seeking to exploit my weaknesses and those of my friends; someone whose intentions I must always suspect; whose action I cannot afford to give the benefit of the doubt, but must rather, as a precautionary principle, always interpret in a negative light, as an act of aggression; someone toward whom it is actually a virtue to appear paranoid.

The appropriateness of these reactions increases in proportion to the level of threat; there may be a place for rules of chivalry and gentlemanly warfare, but when I am under existential threat, facing an enemy who will stop at nothing, I cannot afford to be naïve and trusting.

He next asks, “What does it mean for someone to be my friend?”

It means someone whom I am determined to support and encourage; someone whose weaknesses I must seek to shore up and compensate for; someone whose missteps I cover for, ready to spring to their aid; someone for whom I actively cultivate an affection and whom I am quick to forgive.

It is someone of whom I try to always think the best, assuming their good intentions and applying a hermeneutic of charity when they speak or act questionably; someone for whom it is a virtue to be trusting to the point of appearing naïve.

He continues:

These radically different strategies of engagement and rules of interpretation are deeply wired into us; even while they may not be necessary for physical survival in a relatively peaceful and civilized age, they are still necessary for social, intellectual, and spiritual survival in a world filled with evil and workers of iniquity.

The friend/enemy distinction is a kind of mental mapping, a shorthand by which we make sense of the chaos around us, determining whom we can trust and how best to deploy our limited powers of empathy and of resistance.

In the intellectual realm, it enables us to simplify the vast spectrum of ideas and positions that confront us, which are beyond the power of even the brightest amongst us to dispassionately evaluate one-by-one. Without fully knowing where each individual stands on a wide range of issues, and without being able to determine where exactly the truth lies on each of those issues, we fall back on the question, “Is this person a friend or a foe?”—a question often partly answered on pre-rational grounds—to decide our posture toward them.

Littlejohn goes on to suggest that we should not necessarily abandon this framework; after all, it is unavoidable. Nor should we declare a truce or ceasefire on all “cultural wars.” But he does argue that “there is a point at which the friend/enemy distinction can do more harm than good, a point that we must be careful to guard ourselves against.”

To see his warning, along with his four strategies for sanity, you can read the whole thing here.

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