Everybody knows the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
I don’t think so. Quite apart from the simplistic, black-and-white division of the world into friends and enemies, I think it’s a morally dangerous idea.
It might encapsulate a frequent truth about expedient political alliances, but more often than not I think it leads to some very dubious moral decisions, most of which reduce to “the end justifies the means”.
Let’s say I’m campaigning for the inclusion of fava beans and chianti on a restaurant menu (and you can all see where this is going). I get enthusiastic support from Hannibal Lecter. Do I want his endorsement?
Let’s make it more realistic, and move it closer to home. I’m campaigning against fracking, and I gain the vocal support of widely recognised public figure. This person is also on record as saying that the Prime Minister should be put in a chaff bag and dumped at sea. They also were recorded saying, after the Prime Minister’s father died, that he died of shame because of his daughter.
Do I want their endorsement? What is the credibility or moral authority of a person like this? Do I want to be seen in pictures, smiling, with this person’s arm around my shoulder? What does it say about my moral standards and beliefs?
Let’s say Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein all make speeches in support of my cause. Do I embrace this support? A xenophobic racist misogynist claims to support indigenous recognition. Do you want that support? An habitual liar and shameless self-promoting billionaire says he’ll fight for the working class. Do you want that support?
What seems to happen with monotonous regularity in these circumstances is that everyone rejoices. “Oh look! Even <Famous Person X> supports our cause!”, or, more accurately “Oh look! Even <Total Arsehole Y> agrees with us! Whoopee! Let’s put out a Press Release!”. I think this is crazy.
I’d divide these dubious enemies of my enemy into four categories:
- People with whom I disagree on most moral issues but this one.
- People whose consistent previous behaviour on this issue has been at best neutral and at worst totally opposite.
- People who are “taking a brave stand” on an issue that 80% of the population agrees with.
- People who are just morally repugnant.
Of course these categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s take the case of some prominent right-wing politicians who have suddenly discovered a new-found distaste for Donald Trump. By and large they fit into all of categories 1, 2 and 3, and some of them might also be in category 4. These are people who campaigned for Trump, supported the nominations of his anti-cabinet, voted in favour of the various failed ACA repeal bills, voted in favour of appropriations for “the wall”, and who suddenly now find the moral courage to point out that he’s not a nice person. Well duh. But everyone is excited…
I regard this as a kind of “return of the prodigal son” phenomenon. Everybody behaves as though these people have made some kind of breakthrough, that they’ve finally seen the light and come to join the good guys, and they’re fêted and praised. Rubbish. They’re morally bankrupt politicians who know a sinking ship when they’re sailing in it, and their “conversion” should be called out for the hypocrisy it is rather than celebrated.
I’m not saying that I only welcome the support of people who think just like me, or that I only want the support of saints and moral paragons. I just think that when you simplify the equation to “the enemy of my enemy” you can end up endorsing or welcoming the support of people who, on balance, you would end up opposing on many other moral issues. I’d question the sincerity of their support, the moral foundation of their support, and the damage they’ll cause to the credibility and reputation of the cause. You may or may not end up achieving your ends, but people won’t forget the means you used.
Let’s not forget that we can easily re-arrange this proverb to read “the friend of my enemy is my enemy”, and more often than not these people are friends with many more of your enemies than they are enemies of your enemies.
This might mean I’ll never make a good politician, but that’s ok; if I wanted to be a mythical beast I’d rather be a unicorn.