(News-Herald, January 2003) I don’t know that it’s an irony, but it’s an often-ignored principle of combat. Your actions feed your opponent.
The principle, perhaps, does not apply to one-on-one hand-to-hand individual contest. But then, that’s a rare contest these days. Our contests are between groups, and that’s when this principle kicks in.
Say you’ve entered into a dispute with the Bayer family, the one that lives just on the other side of the backyard. Chances are the Bayers are not all of one mind on the matter.
“They’re a stupid and unreasonable threat to us, and they need to be stopped,” says Mama Bayer.
“They’re decent people and we have nothing to fear from them. Let’s just take a chance and work this out,” says Papa Bayer.
“By reaching for understanding, we can better come in contact with the force that binds the universe and confront the existential angst that confronts all humans; at the same time we will create positive karma for ourselves,” says Baby Bayer. (Baby Bayer is currently a philosophy major at Clarion).
Our behavior toward the Bayers will feed one of those points of view. If we start lobbing stink bombs over the fence, Mama will say, “See, I told you so” and Papa will be hard-pressed to answer her. If we take over a nice bundt cake, Papa gets to say “I told you so,” and Mama has to overcome his objections.
Granted, what we feed our opponents is not the only factor involved. Mama can throw the bundt cake in the trash and continue to declare, “They must be stopped.”
But every stance in a contest costs energy. And if you can’t draw the energy from your opponents, you have to draw from your own resources, and that costs as well. You can lie to your own people, or try to hold down your own dissenters, but in the end that carries an enormous internal price.
That’s why political activists love it when their opponents say something outrageous; it feeds their point of view and pumps in energy without costing them a thing.
And to some extent, that’s how we have turned Saddam Hussein into the heroic leader of a solid regime. Instead of the next Fidel Castro, we’ve made him into George Washington. And Saddam, being a wily little oil-country despot, seems to understand how to avoid feeding his most rabid opponents.
So we watch the inspectors, not hoping that Saddam turns out to be threatless, but hoping we can catch him at something that will prove he needs to be spanked. I have no trouble imagining policy-makers in DC wishing that Saddam would gas a bunch of people or blow up some orphanages or just do somthing that would make the USA hawk argument stronger.
And that is the ironic part of this—as our designated opponent, Saddam has almost as much ability to control America’s agenda as any suit in Washington. Sure, we can go to war without him. But if Saddam won’t feed the hawkish viewpoint, our leaders will have to do it themselves, and that means feeding it with our own resources, and we can already see the results: dissent, disunion, and distrust in some quarters that our government might say anything to get us to back the military play.
This really is ironic; despite the notion that opponents are somehow separated, two distinct and isolated sides, the truth is that we are usually tied as closely to our opponents as we are to our allies.
In this strange symbiosis, we cannot strike out at them without paying a price with our own teammates, and the strength we feed at them becomes theirs to use against us. This is why the Roman Empire worked in a way that few others in history ever did; they understood that you cannot wipe out your opponents without sowing the seeds of your own destruction.
If you feed your opponents fear, they fill up with fear, and a frightened human is a dangerous human. If you feed them respect, that can grow as well.
In the end, the gulf that we reach across to grapple with our opposition is a problem that we share with them; it is almost impossible to unilaterally solve. That doesn’t mean we should all join hands and start in on “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” or that we should stop standing for what we believe in, or that we should accept wrong for right; but if we think the solution will be that we beat our opponents into submission, we might as well hope that Santa Claus will come settle it all for us.