Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Enemies

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Why are we so skeptical of the things right in front of us? “Turns Out It’s Pretty Good” is a series that examines the path from resisting the well-known to wholeheartedly endorsing it.

The people I hate have been on my mind a lot lately. Much to my surprise, I’ve found myself missing people I profoundly dislike.

Hate might sound like a strong word, but after a year-plus of the pandemic, I’ve come around to the idea that having an enemy — or better still, numerous enemies — is an underrated and vital part of normal life. We all want a circle of supportive friends, family, and colleagues, but a rival group (or at the very least one adversary) should be next on the list.

I’m not alone in thinking this (in fact, I’m late to the party). Pre-pandemic, writer Roxane Gay tweeted frequently about her various foes and has written on the subject. In 2018, New Yorker staff writer Helen Rosner observed: “I must reluctantly admit that my nemesis has been tweeting good stuff lately.” And Taylor Lorenz wrote in The Atlantic about how having an “online nemesis” — an unnamed male journalist — improved her work ethic. A celebration of enemies has been thriving in pop culture, too: There’s an entire genre of memes — from Emma Roberts’s “surprise, bitch” to Kim Kardashian’s “it’s what she deserves” — dedicated to defeating our rivals.

My newfound embrace of enemies feels driven by the fact that the pandemic has made holding grudges (let alone talking about them) much less acceptable. Everything being so terrible has resulted in widespread hypermoralization: an encouragement to not sweat the small stuff or complain. But what if this enforced maturity is stifling? Personally, I find myself longing to cross paths with the group I call my “enemy gays” — featuring a friend’s ex-boyfriend and the snake who is now engaged to another friend’s ex-boyfriend (a scandal!). What once would have been painfully awkward now feels potentially exhilarating.

Enemies can come in less dramatic forms, too, of course. We’ve all got them. That “friend of a friend” you can’t stand but are forced to endure at group events. Everyone who chose your ex over you. Every man who fucked over your friends. The “rival group” at university and school. The former roommate who invited their boyfriend to move in with you without asking. The overfamiliar spouse one of your parents … acquired. The cousin who constantly challenges your “favorite grandchild” status. The rude work colleagues and notorious (but infuriatingly successful) scammers who represent everything you hate about your industry.

Words like enemy and nemesis might sound extreme for these fairly mundane rivalries — and not long ago, I’d have been hesitant to refer to anyone this way. Yet a year of no emotion seeming valid in comparison to the big picture of grief, distance, and loss has made me realize that not liking people — even and maybe especially if we’re jealous of them — is a reality that we should feel more comfortable exploring. It’s not always a personal failing to reject the work someone does, the things they say, and how they treat people. In the wise words of the writer Sarah Schulman, “not all conflict is abuse.”

Conflict can be a vital part of growing up. Meeting like-minded friends will anchor us, but it is affirming in a different way to discover people we don’t like. Photographer Laurie Simmons said it best in 2015, when, on her daughter Lena Dunham’s podcast, she credited her enemies with her early success. “It’s almost like you had to have an enemy to feel alive,” she said. “You had to have an ‘enemy group’ to feel necessary, vital or vibrant. That’s a part of being young: to feel that kind of anger and to feel like you’re really alive.”

It’s true that many of us are gifted with what writer Megan Nolan calls a “concentrated fury” in our youth. We’re exploring the world with fresh eyes, in exhilaratingly binary terms, which makes us feel powerful. Who is on our side? Who is against us? And who is to blame? As we age, we’re encouraged to become more tolerant of things that once enraged us — or at least to oppose them in a less loud, more “adult” way. This is why I now consider holding vendettas in adulthood to be a form of rebellion: From childhood, we’re told to grow up, yet these often-petty feuds represent our last resistance to acceptable and mature behavioral norms. They allow us to consider ourselves an important force to be reckoned with once more, worthy of notorious rival status.

The best part of having an enemy, I’ve now discovered, is that they never even have to know about it. There can be an entire secret story line of pettiness filled with long-held grudges and hidden depths of dislike. This might sound cowardly or even wrong, but as writer James Greig recently wrote, trashing people behind their back can actually be “considerate.” Talking about people in private, he argues, can be a form of “harm reduction” and even “an act of great mercy” when it’s so easy to humiliate people publicly on social media. And honestly? Sometimes the beef just isn’t that deep to merit a confrontation.

That said, despite my embrace of enemies, I’m still aware that it’s not for everyone. I hope it goes without saying that if a person has done something harmful and you find yourself consumed by hatred for them, it’s probably best to talk to them directly or seek alternative methods. The same can be said if competing with your nemesis starts seriously damaging your self-esteem or if your enemy starts taking up more headspace than you’d like. It’s supposed to be fun, after all.

But I’m willing to say, loudly and clearly, that I miss being petty. More precisely, I’m looking forward to life feeling light or normal enough that I can hold on to things. I can’t wait to be offended again, to hold a grudge, without immediately assuming it’s my fault. Because now I know that disliking someone (or even being hated by someone) isn’t necessarily a moral failing. The enemies we pick often say more about us: our values, our egos, our insecurities, and our desire to feel forbidden emotions. As long as we’re self-aware about it and not trying to hurt anyone — why not?

Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Enemies