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Conjure a Common Enemy


Of course, it is quite a commonly used technique among leaders to arouse people to work together by pointing to something that they all want. For example, leaders may use visions of a better future to motivate diverse people to work together to build a bridge, say, or find a cure for cancer or to put a person on the moon. And, sometimes, as when an army stands on the border about to cross into a country, the leader may call upon everyone to work to defeat that enemy. 

The difference between working together to create something and working together to destroy something is quite palpable. Working to create something tends to make people feel happy and behave and think creatively. Working to destroy an enemy tends to arouse fear and anger. It is stressful and stress tends to foster doing the same thing rather than doing something new. At the end of the day, when people work together to build something good, that may provide positive value for a long time to come. When people work together to destroy something, they feel good temporarily, but what they have at the end of the day is, at best, nothing. 

I claim nothing is the best long-term outcome for destroying a common enemy. This may strike you as odd because, after all, if you defeat an enemy, you might be able to enslave their children or sexually abuse some of the survivors. You may also be able to steal some of their wealth. I still claim that these “benefits” are worse than nothing as an outcome because they will tend to corrupt and demean everyone involved in the effort. The gold that is extracted from people’s teeth and given to you as the spoils of war is not really a benefit. The gold may not tarnish. But you will. And so will your children.

bullion gold gold bars golden

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Note however, that the title of this Anti-Pattern is not: “Fighting a Common Enemy.” I chose “Conjuring a Common Enemy” quite deliberately. These are not enemies that are about to take your life and property. These are enemies conjured out of thin air, or more accurately, out of the disappointments, fears, humiliations, and angers that people have suffered. The Anti-leader essentially claims that any failure you have experienced and all that attendant negative emotion you felt is not your fault. The disappointments of the past are not due to your own faulty actions, bad choices, bad luck, or being born into unfortunate circumstances. No, the Anti-leader proclaims that your illness, unemployment, lack of wealth, lack of a loving relationship  – they are all caused by an enemy. 


The Anti-leader wants to make it really easy to distinguish these conjured common enemies from everyone else. They might therefore choose dress, age, gender, race, or location as “magic markers.” They are “magic” because in real life, all one finds are, at best, tenuous correlations between the markers and actual behavior. But in the conjured enemy, they are all alike. It is a magic marker of ability, motivation, or behavior. If it is too hard to tell enemies apart from the “good guys,” the Anti-leader will mark the conjured enemy. Jews might be required to wear yellow stars. The “good guys” might all wear brown shirts or red hats while they “spontaneously” destroy things. 

In some cases, leaders try to cast inanimate and abstract things as “enemies.” Thus, we have the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Drugs.” While this framing is not so nasty and despicable as a “War on Immigrants” or a “War on Jews” or a “War on Blacks,” it is still an ineffective framing. Instead of a “War” on “Poverty” it would make more sense to build a bridge to prosperity, to my way of thinking. A “War on Drugs” is just plain silly. It would be laughable if it hadn’t cost so much money ($ 1,000,000,000,000 – one trillion dollars and counting) and ruined so many lives (many more than drug misuse and abuse has). Among the important questions that a “War on Drugs” glosses over are: “What is a ‘drug’?”, “Isn’t it really drug abuse that you are against?” “Why are some powerful and addictive drugs like caffeine, alcohol, Ritalin, and nicotine deemed okay while others like marijuana deemed not okay?”

shallow focus photography of cannabis plant

Photo by Michael Fischer on Pexels.com

One problem with blaming all your troubles on a conjured enemy is that, even if you do destroy this “enemy,” you’ll be left with the same set of issues that you had before. Stemming immigration to the USA in 2018, will not land you a job in 2018 or in 2019 nor in 2020. Making homosexual marriage illegal will not improve your own marriage in the slightest. Making it illegal for Buddhists to practice their religion will not make you a better Jew; making Islam illegal will not make you a better Christian; making Christianity illegal will not make you a better Hindu. 

There is also a more systemic and pernicious problem with Conjuring a Common Enemy. Eventually, a society, business, or team who never faces the real causes of their failures will never improve and will be relatively disadvantaged in any competition with similar organizations who do face facts. In addition, once people are in the habit of blaming others for their troubles, they become ever more pushed into an “us vs. them” mentality; they will be unable to see win/win solutions for what they really are.


They may well eventually turn on their Anti-leaders the way they did on Mussolini. Since the enemies are conjured, it is also necessary to spin an illusion about them. This was fairly easy to do in ancient times or in Medieval times. With mass media and the Internet, one cannot simply assert some absurdity and have it go unchallenged. The Anti-leader will therefore tend to destroy people’s access to sources of information that might challenge his or her lies; e.g., TV news, newspapers, websites, etc. and instead try to fill people’s minds with so much doubt that they will be tempted to make the “easiest” decision; that is, simply to believe the liar and their lies.  

Comments welcome; e.g., agreements, disagreements, references, examples, suggested Patterns or Anti-Patterns. 


Here are some of my books. Perhaps I should do the next one on Pattern Language? 

The Winning Weekend Warrior focuses on strategy, tactics, and the ‘mental game’ for all sports as well as business and life. The Winning Weekend Warrior

Turing’s Nightmares depicts possible scenarios in the world filled with Artificial Intelligence. What might that mean for humanity? Turing’s Nightmares

Fit in Bits is for anyone with a desire to stay in shape but an extremely hectic, busy, or unpredictable life. Fit in Bits suggests many ways to work various exercises into other daily activities. My own favorite is to dance while cooking or washing and drying dishes. 

Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Reflection. Actually, this one is related to and inspired by the Pattern: Build from Common Ground. In Tales I recount early memories and then relate them my current values and what that says to me about contemporary issues in society. I invite you to take a little of my journey, not because it is your journey, but precisely because it isn’t. Therefore, we have observed different things and then come perhaps to observe the same things differently. It is simply my recollections and reflections – not the “correct” ones. Tales from an American Childhood

All are available on Amazon from links on my Author Page.