My wife and I are working our way through seasons 1 and 2 of the TV drama series Madam Secretary. In the episode we just watched, a compromising photograph of the heroine’s young adult daughter, Stevie, has been leaked.
Very quickly, the photograph is traced to a former secret serviceman who is now in custody. Mother and Father visit him and leave the culprit being interviewed by their daughter, Stevie. She obviously asks him why he did it. The man is crestfallen, not justifying his actions, but explaining how it was revenge on his government employer who had sacked him.
Stevie goes on to ask the man about his life and he, full of defensive suspicion, asks her why she wants to know.
“Because,” she replies, “I don’t want to define you for the rest of my life by one stupid act.”
Demonising the enemy
It is a well-established psychological phenomenon that soldiers find it easier to kill their enemy in battle if they dehumanise them if they don’t allow themselves to consider that the person in the crosshairs of their gunsight maybe has a partner and children. Hatred further dehumanises the enemy, whoever they are. Distance, not meeting face-to-face with people, not returning their calls, also helps us to dehumanise someone. And we do this all the time in political debate and in business struggles, as well as in physical battle.
Furthermore, repeated misinterpretation of actions and behaviour can build an almost-unassailable myth about the person we hate. We rehearse our version of their motives again and again until that myth takes on the diabolical appearance of an undeniable truth in our mind, whatever the facts may be.
Doing the opposite
If demonising our enemy is easy, humanising them is much harder. It needs to be more considered and courageous. Facing our enemy, and asking them questions is sometimes the only way if we ourselves are not to be enslaved to hatred and to its deeper cousin, fear.
So, in almost-hostile relationships at work, I always advocate a courageous stepping towards the enemy first. We may not want to do it. We would rather indulge ourselves in self-righteous hatred.
It takes courage and maturity to be more Stevie.