I am reading Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War. It’s a good book and I’ve learned a lot already. From time to time, I’ll summarize a strategy that I’ve learned from the book and provide examples. Today, I’ll be talking about the Polarity Strategy.
As an introduction, Greene says this about Strategy:
Strategic warriors operate much differently. They think ahead toward their long-term goals, decide which fights to avoid and which are inevitable, know how to control and channel their emotions. When forced to fight, they do so with indirection and subtle manuever, making their manipulations hard to trace. In this way they can maintain the peaceful exterior so cherished in these political times.
[…] the word “strategy” comes from the ancient Greek word strategos, meaning literally “the leader of an army.” Strategy, in this sense, is the art of generalship, of commanding the entire war effort, deciding what formations to deploy, what terrain to fight on, what maneuvers to use to gain an edge […]
The Polarity Strategy is based on the fact that people are seldom directly hostile. The rules of engagement — social, political, or otherwise — have changed, and so must our notions of the enemy. The definition for the word “enemy” has been demonized and politicized over the years, according to Greene. In truth, it means “not a friend.” Given this definition and the fact that people are more subtle now in their attacks, we must be more careful than ever:
[…] Although the world is more competetive than ever, outward aggression is discouraged, so people have learned to go underground, to attack unpredictably and craftily. Many use friendship as away to mask aggressive desires: they come close to you to do harm. Or without actually being friends, they offer assistance and alliance: they may seem supportive, but in the end, they’re advancing their own interest at your expense.
Without getting paranoid, you need to realize that there are people who wish you ill and operate indirectly. Identify them and you’ll suddenly have room to maneuver.
Greene uses several examples to support the Polarity Strategy. In particular, he uses the example of Mao Tse-tung and Lin Biao, a high ranking member of the Politburo. In the late 1960’s, Mao detected a change in Lin. He noticed that Lin had become unusually friendly and praised Mao more than he had. To Mao, this meant something was wrong. To expose Lin, Mao exposed Lin by getting him emotional — this strategy works well, according to Greene. To expose your enemies, provoke tension and argument. This strategy works well and exposes people’s true feelings and overcomes courtship and the peacemaker default. In Greene’s words:
[…] People tend to be vague and slippery because it is safer than outwardly committing to something. If you are the boss, your subordinates will mimic your ideas. Their agreement is often pure courtiership. Get them emotional; people are usually more sincere and honest when they argue. If you pick an argument with someone and he keeps on mimicking your ideas, you may be dealing with a chameleon, a particularly dangerous type. Beware of people who hide behind a facade of vague abstractions and impartiality: no one is impartial. A sharply worded question, an opinion designed to offend, will make them react and take sides.
Greene closes the chapter by explaining that the goal of the Polarity Strategy is clarity, not paranoia. Not everyone is out to destroy you, but we want clarity to know who our true friends are and who our enemies are.