A World Without Enemies

Simon Kerr
8 min readApr 13, 2021


The remains of the Berlin Wall, (Eric Ward, Unsplash)

It takes a certain type of self-belief to stride onto the biggest stage at Australian’s largest music festival with only an acoustic guitar and your voice. Michael Franti did this at the Woodford Folk Festival in 2015. I have long been a fan of Franti. He has a piercing directness and presence, blending a joy of music with a powerful articulation of social justice. But my most abiding memory of Franti goes to his 2005 documentary, ‘I am not alone’ and a torn and humble sticker on his guitar case that simply said: No Enemies.

That simple phrase somehow lodged itself deep into my neural pathways and became an inescapable component of my moral compass. But it was hard to explain to people what it meant, so I ended up writing a song called, unsurprisingly, No Enemies. I finally recorded it for a new album, part of a project called Stories for our New Future, exploring narrative change needed in the climate crisis. This essay explains why a song about a moral commitment has everything to do with the climate crisis.

No enemies

Can we live in a world without enemies, where religious and political conflicts are relics of the past, where workplace bullying and domestic conflict never occurs, where our closest relationships are always emotionally safe places? These are live questions for virtually every individual at some stage of their lives and ongoing questions for many communities and nations.

I don’t know the answer. Even if human violence is trending down, as cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker argues, few of us can escape the arrows of misunderstanding, injustice, unfair judgement by others. The far more pertinent and personal question is: ‘How can ensure I hold no enemies in my heart?’

Facebook used to drive me crazy because of the things people would say. But it has improved in recent years, though only because the algorithm has figured out what I like and therefore only shows me stuff I already agree with. Still, occasionally something slips through the algorithmic defences and I get confronted with some bizarre idea or conspiracy. I’m always surprised how easily riled I can get by such things.

We live in a world where ideas are too easily entrenched and defended in opposition to people whose views are not like our own, who draw maddeningly different interpretations from the same ‘facts’ and whose values are incomprehensible to us.

The ‘Other’

Sociologist have long understood how this ‘othering’ takes place. For most of us, enemies don’t come with a gun in their hand but rather in the form of people who believe and speak in ways that offend our perceptions of the world. Even the most enlightened look out across this diverse social world, quick to judge a misstep, a poorly phrased response or use of language that does not meet our own highly refined understanding of what racism, environment, climate action, sexism, consumerism, politics ought to be. These people can easily become ‘other’, defined by their difference and distance from me and my tribe.

I like to think I am good at resisting the temptation of ‘othering’, but in truth, I struggle with this. I try to resist labels because they confine us and restrict our growth and identity. I don’t like the easy political labels of left and right because they don’t tell you what I actually think in any nuanced way. I resist the label ‘vegan’, even though I do not eat animals, because my views are more complex than what that label might imply. I resist the term ‘atheist’ because of how it may be misinterpreted, even though intellectually it makes sense to me. Our views are almost always more complex than social memes might suggest.

We are always fallible

Part of the reason for trying to resist labels is simple; we are inescapably fallible. We only ever have a partial, obscured view of this gloriously strange world we share.

Our knowledge is always partial and truth is never final. Acknowledging this is the beginning of wisdom.

No enemies, that guitar case sticker and simple slogan, reminded me of another more challenging path. A path of non-judgement. A path of deep listening. A path of consciously resisting the temptation to come to a conclusion before all the facts are in. The path of compassion and understanding.

I remember the Dalai Lama once saying that everyone wants to be happy. No one chooses misery, at least not consciously. It was such a simple statement, but it helped me understand that everyone (ok, almost everyone) wants the same things. It really helped me feel compassion for people with whom I was otherwise frustrated by or even angry at. This doesn’t mean I needed to agree with them about the climate crisis, racism, politics, or their social media posts. But it did give me pause to think of them not just as the ‘other’, the racists, the climate deniers, the misogynists, but as real people who, for the most part, were doing their best.

There is no room here for being sanctimonious; inevitably, future generations will judge me and my generation for our wilful blindness and moral failings. Not that we can see it now, but they will.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The most important part of this story is remembering to hold compassion and respect in our hearts for people with whom we strongly and passionately disagree, while at the same time strongly and passionately disagreeing with them.

It might take practice, but the old idea of loving the sinner but not the sin is well worth reflecting on. It is hard to do it when my bubble or tribe constantly reinforces how bad the other side is, when there is little nuance in arguments, and we even risk being cast out of our own group should we seek to understand or explain the views of the ‘enemy’.

‘No enemies’ therefore provides a simple insight: We can (and at times must) oppose a view, idea or behaviour, but must do so without also objectifying the other as a bad person or a bad group. We are always more complicated than simplistic judgements.

This is not an easy road to take, especially when deep injustices are uncovered. Anger is understandable and sometimes is a healthy response, but it is dangerous when it is the only response we have. Being decent and kind is a more challenging path than being right. It takes deep awareness of our own internal processes to hold onto our human kindness. And it takes a lifetime of practice.

The Ad Hominem Argument

Philosophers tell us there are various fallacies or wrong ways to make an argument. A few years ago I co-wrote an article for a newspaper about the climate crisis and music. Within minutes of it being published on-line, a series of personal attacks about me were made in the comments section. What could a mere guitar player know about climate issues? Conveniently ignoring my PhD in environmental philosophy, the writer attacked me with a series of sarcastic put-downs. This is called an ad hominem argument where we attack the person rather than the argument itself. This might secure an emotional victory by putting down or shutting the other person up, but it is in fact a form of bullying and does nothing to increase mutual understanding.

When we feel threatened, we often retreat to the safety of our group; it is emotionally easier and simpler to retreat into the bubble. It is hard work to stay open to people and ideas that seem the complete opposite of what we stand for, of who we are.

Seeing Differently

But what if we looked at it from another angle? What can we learn from disagreement or conflict? If the Dali Lama is right and most people seek happiness or a peaceful life, then we can learn more about a situation by deeper listening to what our ‘opponents’ are saying.

Because of the climate crisis I want to see the burning of coal rapidly phased out. Most of my ‘bubble’ shares the same view. Yet, people reliant on coal production, for example, are rightfully worried that closure of a coal fired power station will rob them of future security. That is a rational response. Without understanding this it is easy to pass simplistic judgement on those people and communities resisting the shift to renewables. So, I ask myself: ‘What would my position be if I was in their shoes?’

While it does not change the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it does change the conversation.

Learning to see from the perspective of others is an important part of empathic listening and learning. A great test of our understanding of others with divergent views is to be able to listen and then reflect their thoughts and feelings back to them in a way that they can recognise that we genuinely understand. We do not have to agree with what they think, but at least we understand why and how they think and feel the way they do.

A Reality Check

That is the ideal. In practice we may not always be able to bridge such gaps. Sometimes I may not be the best person (or my organisation the best organisation) to have such conversations. Sometimes some topics really are too difficult to discuss and are best avoided if the outcome would be worse than not having the conversation. I have learnt this the hard way! But even in the most challenging dialogue, bridges can usually be built by someone or some group, even if it is not us. We need to be realistic, do what we can and live with the reality that even with the best intentions, our world is a messy place.

But we do have control over how we respond to such communicative impasses. No matter how frustrating it may be and how wrong we think others are, we are always better off not providing space in our hearts for our ‘enemies’, for once they find a home there, they can be hard to evict.

Becoming the People the Future Needs

The future we face is highly challenged; the climate and ecological crises have the potential to rip our communities apart and create great danger for our collective future. Tribalism will be a great temptation in times of fear and insecurity. It will be all too easy to find enemies to blame for the troubles. This will not give us the safe future we need. Creating a world in which we can hear each other, creating ways to resolve conflicts and to avoid giving into fear requires a ‘no enemies’ commitment; for ourselves, for our communities and for nations.

Are we able to do this? Absolutely. Will we actually do this? I honestly don’t know. It depends on how much work we put into building stronger, safer and more resilient communities. What is clear is that a safer future needs people who refuse to create enemies, who seek understanding, compassion and maintain a fierce commitment to a safer and more just future. Let us indeed find solace in our own tribes, but never forget that at a planetary level, we are, ultimately, one tribe sharing one home.



Simon Kerr

Climate change thinker, research fellow, creator of ‘Music for a Warming World’, www.musicforawarmingworld.org and has a PhD in Politcal Ecology