In the Garden of the Amity/Enmity Complex

Behavioral scientists of the old school would call the Amity/Enmity Complex a “just so story.”  In other words, it’s a universal phenomenon, observable in countless instances in both humans and other animals, inexplicable other than as a manifestation of an innate behavioral trait, but something that they find inconvenient for ideological reasons and therefore choose to deny and ignore.  To justify this seemingly irrational denial of the obvious, they demand a standard of proof that such traits exist immeasurably stronger than that they apply to “proved scientific facts,” by which they mean far flimsier hypotheses that happen to have the virtue of  agreeing with a preferred narrative.   

Briefly put, the Amity/Enmity Complex refers to our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups, favoring the former and hating and despising the latter. As the great anatomist and anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith put it, “Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love. Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier: it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”  Today the Complex is commonly referred to as in-group/out-group behavior, but I see no need to conform to the constantly shifting nuances of jargon in the behavioral sciences.

China’s Great Cultural Revolution was a great tragedy.  It was also a perfect illustration of the Complex in action.  In 1966 the bored old man who happened to run China at the time decided that the Chinese Communist Party and society at large were permeated by a “bourgeois spirit,” and that what the country needed was more revolutionary spirit.  He decided to shake things up a bit.  What happened next is summed up in Wikipedia as follows:

On August 8, 1966, the Central Committee of the CPC passed its “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” (also known as “the 16 Points”). This decision defined the GPCR as “a great revolution that touches people to their very souls and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country, a deeper and more extensive stage”:

“Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavor to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society. At present, our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road, to criticize and repudiate the reactionary bourgeois academic “authorities” and the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes and to transform education, literature and art, and all other parts of the superstructure that do not correspond to the socialist economic base, so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.”

The decision thus took the already existing student movement and elevated it to the level of a nationwide mass campaign, calling on not only students but also “the masses of the workers, peasants, soldiers, revolutionary intellectuals, and revolutionary cadres” to carry out the task of “transforming the superstructure” by writing big-character posters and holding “great debates.”

In the intervening years many eyewitnesses have published vignettes of what happened next including Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng, Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang, and China’s Son by Da Chen.  One of the most interesting is Born Red, a fine piece of writing by Gao Yuan.  It is a case study in how new in-group/out-group relationships emerged in the supposedly “classless” society that was established in the wake of the Communist victory, how easy it was to inflame them against each other, how seemingly insignificant and incomprehensible differences between them were magnified until they assumed earthshaking importance in the minds of the opposing factions, how loyalty to the in-group inspired acts of fearless bravado, “heroism,” and even martyrdom, and, in the end, how all the resulting chaos and mayhem were finally stopped and society returned to “normal.”  In short, the Revolution was an experiment in human psychology on a massive scale, demonstrating the manifestation of an ancient and innate human behavioral trait in a world  far different from the one in which it evolved.

The Amity/Enmity Complex describes the interplay of in-groups and out-groups and, of course, Communism has always had its own idiosyncratic out-group.  It is the bourgeoisie, technically the private owners of the social means of production, but a term that has often been expanded to include peasants with slightly more land or slightly more productive and affluent than their neighbors, workers who were somewhat better off than average, people whose houses were larger than a certain size, or anyone else with some kind of a real or imagined privilege.  So it was that, when the Great Cultural Revolution was launched, it began with the posting of innumerable “dazibao,” or “big character posters,” attacking the “bourgeoisie.”  It couldn’t be just a vague, general bourgeoisie.  Individuals were needed.  The party helped things along with its suggestion that the “criticism” start with “reactionary bourgeois academic authorities.”  Thus, teachers and school administrators were among the first victims of the dazibao smears.  They were associated with a host of evil traits that have been associated with out-groups since the dawn of time.  For example, they were “impure” and “dirty,” by virtue of “bourgeois” parents, grandparents or other associations.  They were the essence of evil by virtue of their opposition to the embodiment of good, in the person of Mao and his “revolutionary line.”  They were guilty by virtue of association with evil incarnate in the person of Chiang Kai Shek and his Guomintang Party.  All these charges were usually baseless slander, but the “revolutionary masses” of students made them stick.  After all, in-groups must have out-groups, even if it’s necessary to invent them out of whole cloth.     

Eventually, the in-groups began to turn their wrath against each other.  Nothing was easier than to convince themselves that the “others,” too, were “dirty,” “impure,” and “evil” distorters of the pure revolutionary line of Mao, just like the school authorities.  They began to “struggle” against each other.  Starting with dazibao, the means of “struggle” became ever more violent and destructive, escalating to fists, spears and slingshots with crude armor, homemade grenades, and, eventually firearms.  Captured opponents, people who had formerly been friends, schoolmates and neighbors, were beaten, viciously tortured, maimed, and occasionally killed.  The author tells of one young girl who, on the point of being captured by the “enemy,” committed suicide by throwing herself from an upper story window rather than be “defiled” by contact with the out-group.  Anyone who failed to take part in these sanguinary and seemingly senseless battles, or who sought to “desert,” became the target of all the opprobrium traditionally heaped on “traitors.” 

And so it continued until Mao, finally tiring of the sport or deciding his political goal of consolidating power had been accomplished, called the whole thing off in 1969.  The active phase of the revolution sputtered on for a while, ending for good only with the death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976.  Their mortal deity having passed from the scene, the contending factions forgot all the reasons for their mutual hatred that had formerly seemed of such earth shattering importance.  Disavowed by the powers that had called them into existence, and having no legitimacy but that conferred by a man who was now dead, the in-groups collapsed, and their members disbanded and went back to their “normal” lives.  In the epilogue, the author, who had emigrated to America in the meantime, recounts how he went back to visit some of his former enemies and torturers.  All acted as if the whole thing had been a bad dream.

We have all seen it happen over and over and over again, across nations, cultures, tribes and societies of all stripes.  We have seen the incarnations of the Complex in the form of racism, religious bigotry, anti-Semitism, and countless other “isms.” The details change, but the fundamental nature of the behavior is always the same.  Isn’t it time to recognize the fact that our five thousand years of recorded history of the same phenomenon over and over again wasn’t just a coincidence?  If there is any reason for optimism about the Chinese experience, it is that it was neither inevitable that the Complex become active and virulent as it did, nor was it impossible to suppress and control once people with the necessary authority finally realized how destructive it had become.   If that experience is any guide, surely we are intelligent enough to control an innate behavioral trait that exists because it promoted our survival at some point in the distant past, but has now become the most likely source of our potential self-destruction.  We cannot, however, effectively control it until we recognize it for what it is, accept its existence, and stop covering our eyes, stopping up our ears, and shouting “just so story” because the Amity/Enmity Complex doesn’t fit in the “nice” world of our fond imaginations.  It’s time to end the denial.  We’ve graduated far beyond dazibao and slingshots to nuclear weapons.  It has become much too dangerous to refuse to understand ourselves in the name of preserving a world that never was.

2 thoughts on “In the Garden of the Amity/Enmity Complex”

  1. Did yuo mean to write “stopping up our ears“?

    “… Today the Complex is commonly referred to as in-group/out-group behavior, but I see no need to conform to the constantly shifting nuances of jargon in the behavioral sciences. …”

    “… We cannot, however, effectively control it until we recognize it for what it is …”

    You would like discussion of the Amity/Enmity Complex to be popularized, right?
    Would “we” be so aware of chaos theory if the catchy phrase “butterfly effect” was never coined?

  2. Yes, I did mean to write “ears.” Thanks for the catch.

    Anyone who would prefer that our species survive would do well to be aware of the Complex and its significance.

    I’m sure chaos theory would still be just as important without the term “butterfly effect.” Other terms would probably have taken its place. The mathematical phenomenon of chaos is very useful, easy to understand and visualize, and, unlike the Complex, does not contradict pleasant fallacies about our nature that many people are determined to believe.

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