Friday, June 21, 2024

My Enemy’s Enemy Is Just That

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My enemy’s enemy is my friend is an adage everyone has heard, in some form, at least once in their life. It is as old as writing. It exists in almost every culture, every language here on Earth. If there is a universal truth, this may be one. And yet, it is false.

To see it is false, one can just try applying it to real life. And not even to big politics where it is all to hard to see who is whose enemy, let alone friend. Try applying it to fandom life, for example. You will see that many people may wage war against a seemingly common enemy (like, canon pairing) but still be not even allies, as a common enemy is just an intersection of their hatreds towards everyone around.

And let’s not even open that can of worms that is implied My enemy’s friend is my enemy idea. Which is almost as widespread as the previous one and has ruined many good alliances—not only political. (Though, in line with Godwin’s law, that was what prevented non-Nazi German parties from forming a coalition. Each side saw the other as mingling with the enemy, be it British or Soviets, and thus the tragedy was born.)

But If It’s False, Then Why Is It Everywhere?

Well, because we’re human, I guess? Not in the “it’s humane to err” sense, but in “that’s how we are” sense.

Our culture goes in circles. We invent an idea, formulate it, then we create something based on this idea—and thus reaffirm, reinvent and renovate that idea. Your typical circus vitiosus, but with great masterpieces. And it doesn’t really matter if the foundational idea was right or wrong: the creation would justify it anyway.

And the better the creation, the more popular it becomes, the stronger the idea sticks in our heads. We are more or less conditioned to believe in certain things just by virtue of being literate and subjected to reading books and viewing cinema or TV.

In particular, this very idea was especially loved in modern visual media. It gave the creators a wonderful shorthand to show a person has changed their heart and now it on the “good” side.

Just make them attack their ex-leader!

enemy's enemy
It’s not like that this shorthand didn’t work, either…

But Reality Still Exists

And in reality the person who turn on their superiors is not always the good guy. This person may have thousands of motivations. At least half of those would be very, very selfish.  And for better or worse, we live in the time when those old ideas, universal truths, are put under scrutiny. When they are weighted and sometimes found unsubstantial.

So, slowly but inevitably comes the time when culture is not going to reaffirm old ideas; it is going to contradict them.

It didn’t start yesterday, mind you. Tolkien, that true underappreciated father of deconstructive fantasy, devoted a large chunk of his Lord of the Rings to exploring why exactly people who have a common enemy are not necessarily allies. Rowling, for all her faults, tried to show the other side of the problem: that not always people who are enemy’s allies are enemies themselves. Sometimes they are mistaken and sometimes they would be our allies if we could give them something essential.

But this battle was largely on the books’ pages. Visual media cherished their shorthand too much. Even such a subversive show as Steven Universe couldn’t stand this temptation and gloriously used it with Lapis Lazuli. (By the way, I want to stress that the shorthand doesn’t make a given media bad; it can be used brilliantly, as it was here.)

But Interestingly, Star Wars Seem to Be Exception

I mean, really. The franchise that made this trope a trademark, that used it to the immense success and rightly so, seemingly renounced it and went on deconstructing it. It’s not that surprising; yet it is interesting.

The deconstruction began even before Disney acquisition, so it cannot be ascribed to any company policy. It just…happened?

enemy's enemy
Resurrected not without purpose

And the first face of it was revenant Darth Maul. His character arc all centered around two things: first, finding his own identity and battling Darth Sidius for the righ to have it; second, fulfilling his mania to destroy Obi-Wan, his almost-killer.

Did he recognize Darth Sidius as a bad guy? Yes, he certainly did. He hated Sidius for being a bad guy, after all. But did it lead him to joining the good guys? Nope. He decided to be “just Maul”, not a sith neither a Darth, but he was still full-on Dark Side person.

Because, you see, one can freely choose Dark Side.

And That Theme of Free (Bad) Choice Continued

It continued to the point where I’d say it became a trope in its own right. If you’re watching/reading/etc a Star Wars something and a villain’s pawn/right-hand person turned on them…don’t be excited. Most likely, it’s not what you hope.

We’ve seen this done brilliantly in The Last Jedi with Kylo Ren, who not for a split second was going back to being a Jedi. We’ve seen this done…not so brilliantly in Solo with Qi’ra, whose motivation will remain a mystery until a novelization comes to explain it.

Both cases have something in common with Maul: those are stories of abused ones, who stroke down their abusers, but adopted their behaviour and their worldview.  A bad choice all too common in real life, a cautionary tale of sorts.

Both of them were given another option, be it a path of redemption or a chance to live peacefully with a loving person. Both chose the “dark” option, because it was much more familiar to them. One can argue that in both cases there was not very much freedom…but there were other options, clearly presented and open for people in question.

Maybe, actually, Star Wars has less interest in opposing a universal truth than in telling—again and again—that violence doesn’t counter violence, another universal truth. Or exploring the cycle of abuse. Or they are just trying to exploit the same surprise turn.

Yet Anyway, Here We Are

Whatever their goal, I am glad they countered the “Enemy’s enemy” adage. If only because this train of thought leads to partisan thinking, massive hatred based on “guilt by association” and overall failure to communicate and build understanding.

Even Star Wars, though, doesn’t touch on another sad subject:: who on Earth even is a friend or an enemy when it comes to ideology…

Images courtesy Disney Lucasfilm

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