The Death of the Worthy Adversary


Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.

Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.

The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.

Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.

There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category

Enemies versus Adversaries

To be destroyed. To be defeated.
Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust. The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.
No trust. Trust is possible.
Zero-sum game. Non-zero-sum game.
Warfare metaphors. Possibilities for cooperation.
Differences between the two sides are maximized. Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.
Unwavering commitment to a perspective. Opportunity for change and altering perspectives
The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it. Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces and can be addressed.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.



Posted on December 20, 2016, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Deliberative Processes, Democracy, Political Conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you. This distinction between enemy and adversary is a crucial point that can’t be made too often or stressed too much.

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