Thursday, February 21, 2008

The demonization conversation continues

This post continues a discussion from the comments to my recent series of posts on demonization. May I encourage you guys to go read those comments? Jim is a dream come true for me: he is very intelligent, he is generous and charitable in discussion – and he disagrees with me on just about everything. I learn more from going back and forth with Jim than I do from discussions with anybody else I can think of off the top of my head.

Jim, I can answer some of your questions very quickly:

“Is calling someone stupid demonization?” No.

“Is calling someone immoral demonization?” Not usually.

“Is repeatedly referencing something bad that someone did demonization? Even if they have either confessed and asked for forgiveness, or been found with extenuating circumstances?” Not if you don’t exaggerate wildly yet in all seriousness, impute to them (at least in what a reasonable listener would take to be your implication) the deliberate embrace of evil and malice, and/or rhetorically associate them with notoriously evil cultural symbols.

“Is repeatedly accusing someone of something they didn’t do demonization?” Not so long as you refrain from exaggeration, imputation of malice and association with iconic evil.

“Is repeatedly saying this person will do something bad, even though there is no evidence supporting the accusation, demonization?” Frequently but not necessarily.

“Does tying obviously charged words like Nazi or gulag automatically make it demonization?” Not quite all the time, but most of it.

Also, let me immediately say something with respect to the following statements from your comment:

“If the definition I extrapolated is correct, then let me say I disagree that Durbin’s description of the things going on in Guantanamo are demonization. He did not exaggerate the things going on. He read a report written by someone who saw the actions. That report was not exaggerated.” I completely agree with you that Durbin’s description of the things going on in Guantanamo was not demonization (though it was unquestionably special pleading of an extreme and rather indefensible degree). What followed was, however, unusually blatant demonization. I hope that by clarifying a little better what I see as the distinguishing marks of demonization I can help you see why I disagree emphatically that you successfully absolve him of demonization with your subsequent defense: “He did not say this is worse then what you may find in Stalinist Russia, or that dubya is worse than Pol Pot. He did say that ‘if you didn’t know better, you would think this was something that Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot did.’ The key weasel words were ‘if you didn’t know better.’”

Okay, here we go. You will gather from the foregoing that I consider the characteristic marks of demonization to be:

1. Exaggeration, not for comic effect.

2. Imputation of evil motives.

3. Rhetorical association with iconic evil. (You seem to think that you have to say somebody is worse than an icon of evil before one crosses the line. Um…if you are capable of sitting calmly and thinking your opponent is playing fair when he tries to convince your friends and neighbors that you are merely as bad as Hitler, then you have set your civility-bar a whole lot lower than most of the rest of us have. [chuckling] I’m trying to imagine you saying with a straight face, “I don’t understand…why should I be angry? He only said I was the moral equivalent of the vilest human being of the last half-millenia. Personally I choose to take that as a compliment. Now, if he’d said I was worse than Hitler…well, them’s fightin’ words.”)

And there’s a fourth characteristic indicator of demonization as well:

4. Playing to an audience known to be predisposed to hatred of the person or group being demonized.

It seems to me that you and I don’t see the necessity for the precise operational definition in quite the same way, because you are thinking (it seems to me) in binary logic whereas in matters linguistic I think fuzzy-logic principles pretty much always apply. By that I mean that there are some things that are obviously demonization, some things that obviously are not, and other things that we can say, “Well, he’s skatin’ pretty close to the line there.” In short you seem to me to be asking a question analogous to asking, “Where does evening end and night begin?” I could be wrong about that, of course.

But in any case, once we allow for the fuzzy/binary distinction, I think you can see what I mean: the more of those four characteristics you see in a piece of rhetoric, and the more blatant they are, the more you can suspect / opine / be certain that the demonization card has been played. Furthermore, the third (association with iconic evil) and fourth (playing to an audience predisposed to hatred) are much stronger indicators of demonization than are the first two. Basically, any time you hear somebody associate a political opponent with iconic evil…

Hang on a minute, I should explain the “iconic evil” bit. An icon of evil is a figure whose name in popular culture has become associated with evil to the point at which the mere mention of the name provokes instant revulsion. The worst, by definition, is Satan himself, followed for those of us who grew up in the twentieth century by Hitler/the Nazis, then Stalin, and then a tier populated more or less equally by Mussolini and Pol Pot and Mao, with Osama and the Islamofascists seemingly poised to leap past that fourth tier into Stalin territory…though, if you were in the left-hand half of the American Left, I suspect that you would react to being called “Osama” with rather less outrage and hurt feelings than if one of your fellow Kossites were to call you “Dubya.” And given the number of Americans who are either atheists or else the sort of vaguely religious persons who think only fundamentalists and the SNL Church Lady believe in the out-of-date myth of the Devil, my impression is that calling somebody “Hitler” or a “Nazi” is now perceived as a more deadly insult than calling him “Satan.”

At any rate, any time you hear somebody associate a political opponent with iconic evil, you should immediately suspect demonization, especially in the current American environment of incivility and mutual condemnation. Once you’ve spotted that tactic, then you check the other characteristics: if exaggeration is present, or if there is no reason to think that the speaker has his tongue in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye, or if the speaker does not make a significant effort to clarify his intent and explicitly reject the apparent imputation of malice (for the association with iconic evil will always be heard by ordinary listeners as an imputation of motives similar to those of the icon of evil), then you can be pretty confident that you have demonization. If you have wild and grim-faced and non-caveated exaggeration along with association with iconic evil, with an intended audience already addicted to rabid hatred of the target, then you definitely have demonization, in its purest form.

In Durbin’s case, in that last paragraph I quoted, he dragged in the two most iconic evil figures of the twentieth century PLUS one from the third tier, exaggerated grotesquely, did so in absolute grim humorlessness and in the most serious forum imaginable, and offered no recognition whatsoever that reasonable people might differ from him on the moral issues involved or that Bush and his administration might be doing what they sincerely (however mistakenly) believed to be the morally right thing to do. And as if that weren’t bad enough, his clear target was Bush & Company, while the choir to which he was obviously preaching was the Democratic base – and only a very oblivious person indeed could, in Durbin’s position, have been blind to the fact that the choir to which he was preaching was already notoriously prone to saying (absurdly) that his target was on a moral plane with Hitler and that Bush’s choices are consistently the choices of a deliberately evil man. If that’s not demonization then nobody in the entire history of the world has ever employed demonization as a rhetorical tactic.

The only possible results of Durbin’s outburst were either (a) no effect, in the case of the great many people who very reasonably see no reason to pay the slightest attention to anything Durbin, or any other Congressmen for that matter, sees fit to disgrace himself by saying in public, or else (b) the stirring up of anger and defensiveness and disgust on the part of people who did not already agree with Durbin’s position, or else (c) the inflaming and reinforcement of the already cancerous tendency for literally millions of people on the Left to hate Dubya with a passion bordering on insanity. I am quite ready, especially in light of Durbin’s subsequent apology, to believe that Durbin did not intend any of those consequences, and that he somehow thought that his speech would have some sort of persuasive effect on some undecided person, somewhere. But that’s just because I’m quite ready to believe that Durbin is an ass, which as a matter of fact is indeed my private opinion, and which I have on previous occasions taken the liberty of making public.

But, as I say, it isn’t really Durbin that interests me. It’s the political climate in which demonization is all but universally excused by all those who happen to agree with the demonizer and to disagree with the target. In a healthy society I would hope that as soon as Durbin unburdened himself of that rot – or as soon as a Republican unburdened himself of similar nonsense pointed in the opposite direction – the Congressmen on the demonizer’s own side of the aisle would be the first to rise up and condemn his tactics. If America were still the kind of country that produced leaders capable of writing the Federalist…okay, another digression I just can’t resist. Washington’s Farewell Address. Madison and the Federalist. The Gettysburg Address and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The Audacity of Hope. [singing chirpily] One of these things is not like the others… (And before Republicans snicker too hard: I originally intended to end that series with Dubya, but was thwarted when the only thing I could come up with for the current Fearless Leader was “The Pet Goat.”)

At any rate, if America were still the kind of country that produced leaders capable of writing such things as the Federalist, then I think you would probably still be right, Jim, in saying that people’s readiness to condemn any given example of demonization would be affected by their party affiliation. The problem is that such a society would not be like modern America; it would be the opposite of modern America. America today has the negative sign backwards, as it were: in a healthy society, you would be far more eager to jump all over the perpetrators on your own side. In modern America, Democrats generally try to excuse or at the very least play down the seriousness of the rantings of the Durbins, while complaining about how “hateful” the Republicans are; while Republicans call Rush Limbaugh a great American and complain about how hate-filled the Daily Kos and the radical feminists are. Both sides seem to me to be desperate to point out the log in the other side’s eye; but I quit reading Michelle Malkin long before I quit reading Molly Ivins, and it seems to me that this is the only healthy response – if you can tolerate evil among those who agree with you better than among those who disagree with you, then you have a deep and serious problem, it seems to me. And the excuse-your-own-side dynamic is not just taken for granted, but is seen as perfectly normal and acceptable, as can be seen in the reactions I got from Democrats when I used Durbin as my example: why was I picking an example two or three years old? Why not Republican examples too? It was taken for granted that my real agenda was to bash Democrats, not to discuss a tactic. The obvious reason for my picking an example two or three years old seems never to have occurred to, for example, the Ghost: it’s because in the two or three years since Durbin’s outburst I haven’t happened to see another example of demonization – including by Democrats – more memorable than Durbin’s, which example happened to stick in my mind not because he was a Democrat but because I have a very deep and decades-old and personal interest in the gulag. If my point had been to say, “Democrats are more evil than Republicans,” then I’m sure fifteen minutes of googling would have gotten me far more recent examples, and therefore examples far more useful for Democratic-bashing purposes.

That’s the single thing that most deeply concerns me. There have always been people who wielded demonization; but it used to be that any responsible and well-educated person would repudiate those of his side who stooped to it. Today the typical responsible and well-educated person will explain to you why it’s not really demonization as long as it’s coming from his side of the aisle.

Now, to return to the tactic itself, having amused myself sufficiently with sweeping dystopian generalizations: I think it would probably be useful at this point to compare my view on demonization to the well-known rule of internet debate by which the first person to mention the name of Hitler is automatically declared to have lost the debate. I personally think that that rule is well-intentioned but overdone – but the reason recourse has to be made to such a blunt and universal rule is precisely the fact that people don’t really understand what demonization is. That rule is meant to head off the most common form of demonization; but as you can see (a) it is only applied when the icon of evil employed is Hitler, and (b) there are circumstances in which you could compare your opponent’s proposals or attitudes to those of Hitler without demonizing. That latter statement may be difficult to believe; so let me give you an example.

Let’s look at the hilarious PTA scene from Field of Dreams, in which both of the characters in the debate are written and acted with note-perfection, including Amy Madigan's Annie, who is one of my favorite characters from the world of fiction and who inspired one my personal favorite Peril posts. For those of you who have not seen the movie (shame on you!), Beulah wants the works of Terence Mann to be kept out of the public school library. There are reasonable arguments both for and against such a measure; but (entertainingly) neither Buelah nor Amy Madigan’s character Annie is reasonable. And of course Annie resorts, shamelessly, to wild-assed demonization: “Who wants to vote for Eva Braun here? Who wants to burn books?” – You know what, if I’d thought about it in time, I’d’ve used that scene, rather than Durbin’s silliness, to establish my categories for demonization, and then nobody would have been distracted by pre-existing party allegiances. Oh, well. I blew that one. Too late now.

What I want to point out here is that Annie could have made similar arguments without demonizing – but only if she had said something like the following:

“Listen, I’m sure you mean well, but I get pretty nervous whenever people start claiming that censorship is a great idea – especially when we’re talking about government censorship. I mean, not to call you Eva Braun or anything, but we all remember that one of the first things the Nazis did when they got power was to start burning books, and that they were especially fanatical about controlling what the young people were allowed to read. I understand that you don’t think that what you’re doing is the same thing the Nazis were doing; but they look enough alike to cause me some concern. Could you explain exactly what the difference is that you see between what you’re proposing and what the Nazis were proposing?”

Now that is actually a fair question; and even though the Nazis come into play – indeed, even though Reasonable Annie is tentatively drawing an equivalence between what the Nazis were doing and what Beulah wants to do – there’s no demonization here. There’s no equivalence drawn between Beulah herself and the Nazis themselves. (As opposed to, “Who wants to vote for Eva Braun here?”) Note the very careful, explicit recognition that Beulah has good intentions; note that Reasonable Annie is very up-front about not wanting to exaggerate what Beulah’s doing. She just wants Beulah to clarify what it is that sets her proposed policy apart from the Nazi one that we all, including presumably Beulah, agree was a bad one – indeed, Reasonable Annie is making it clear that she does not think Beulah is a Nazi and that she takes it for granted that there is something that sets the two policies apart from each other, even though she herself can’t at the moment tell precisely what that something is supposed to be. If and when Beulah clarifies her position, then you will be able to move on to have a reasonable discussion about whether the alleged differences are valid, and, assuming they are, what sorts of measures need to be taken to be sure you don’t start sliding down a slippery slope and wind up some place nobody, including Beulah, ever meant to go.

But then, of course, if Annie had done it that way, she would have been very reasonable – and, also, she wouldn’t have swept the vote. Instead Annie went with the flagrantly unfair, unreasonable, wild-eyed, judgmental, malicious, irresponsible and emotionally powerful approach. (In fact, in her own words, “It was just like the Sixties again!” I couldn’t agree more. ;-) )

This I think goes to your point about Republican rhetoric about Democrats’ “letting the terrorists win.” It is one thing for Republicans to say that the approach the Democrats want to use is foolish and is likely to result, however unintentionally, in a disastrous weakening of our national security. It is another thing entirely to call Democrats “traitors” (and I have always disapproved pretty strongly of the name of the “Patriot Act,” with its deliberate attempt to imply than anybody who voted against it was an enemy of the American people). I think a serious and reasonable point can be made – I would make it myself if I ever got around to finishing your and my long-suspended discussion on torture – that the Democratic approach fails to deal adequately with the government’s moral obligation to protect the innocent in a world in which lack of knowledge is an unavoidable constraint and tragic mistakes are inevitable no matter which policies you adopt…but that no more means that Democrats are purposely helping terrorists kill Americans than the unarguable results of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies prove that Chamberlain was on Hitler’s side all along. So I think usually when you hear the word “traitor” getting thrown around – “traitor” being a word that clearly implies a particular, and despicable, conscious motivation – then you’re probably dealing with demonization (and if a name like “Benedict” or “Quisling” pops up then we have a definite diagnosis). Similarly the phrase “aiding and abetting the enemy” has to be used with extreme caution if it’s going to be used at all – I think there’s no doubt that the New York Times, for example, has done exactly that objectively speaking; but I think it’s very difficult to say so without appearing to imply, I am sure unjustly, that they did so on purpose. That’s a line I don’t want to cross; but it’s a line certain Republican commentors cross on a near-daily basis. (Or at least they used to, back before my marriage disintegrated and I stopped having time to pay attention to politics.)

Oh, on the humor thing: since my reason for trying to define what is ethical and what isn’t in political discussion, is fundamentally about monitoring and controlling my own behaviour, it doesn’t bother me much that people can claim that they were “only joking.” I always know whether my own intent was humorous or not, and that’s the really critical issue. When somebody else says something grossly offensive, then we can either believe them, or else – as very often happens – we can say, “Yeah, like hell you were joking; you just got into more trouble than you intended and now you’re trying to weasel out of it.” That’s just a matter of how much judgment we want to go around passing on other people, and it has to do with asking what kind of person a particular person is, rather than what kind of rhetorical tactics are socially acceptable in public discourse. Personally I think “feminazi” is a contemptible term to use (precisely because of the “Nazi” component) and I don’t really care that Rush Limbaugh is sufficiently lost to charity as to think that it’s funny. But how much does it really matter what I think about it? I mean, that’s pretty much between Rush, his dittoheads, the feminist lunatic fringe (I confess that I share Rush’s basic opinion of their character and sanity, more or less; I just object to his tactics), and the God to Whom they all answer. All it means for me is that I don’t listen to Rush very often.

By the way, I should point out here that when I put moralistic musings like this one out on the blog, the main reason is so that when I violate ’em myself, you guys can jump my case and hold me accountable.


At 10:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gotta' love those engineers! Who else would say something like, "It seems to me that you and I don’t see the necessity for the precise operational definition in quite the same way, because you are thinking (it seems to me) in binary logic whereas in matters linguistic I think fuzzy-logic principles pretty much always apply. ..." :-)

For those of you who aren't engineers (or aren't married to one, like I am), I think Kenny's saying it's not all black and white -- each situation needs to be evaluated individually. Fuzzy logic is NOT logic that's not clear. Binary gives you the choice of "yes" or "no" (0 or 1) -- fuzzy logic lets you choose somewhere in between "yes" and "no" (e.g. .3, .7, etc. -- something between 0 and 1).

Hope that's kind of what you're saying, Kenny! Or did I just make the situation "fuzzier"? :-)


At 8:28 AM, Blogger Jim r said...

Kenny, I will have to think about this for a while. We agree in principle about demonization, and that demonization is wrong. You and I agree that when someone of "our side" does it, we should be the first to jump em. (I do on Dkos by the way). I agree in principle about your fuzzy logic as to the degree. I do think that we can still come up with a definition that we can agree to binary or not, and we need to, or else, we will continue to disagree on some instances, especially when it is from "our side". We may have to put the Durbin example aside for that very reason.

One thing I think will be an interesting commentary will be, is it more demonization to overtly call someone a nazi, or do it in a way that is more subtle.

At 4:40 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...


Good enough for me.


[grinning] Now I'll have to do a fuzzy logic post just to make sure that bit was clear...temporarily forgot that there's a pretty constrained subset of my target demographic that would know what the heck I was talking about.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger Jim r said...

1. Exaggeration, not for comic effect.
2. Imputation of evil motives.
3. Rhetorical association with iconic evil.
4. Playing to an audience known to be predisposed to hatred of the person or group being demonized.

Ok, I can agree with these definitions. With one caveat, that I would combine one and two, Exaggeration of and the imputation of evil motives. I think comic effect should not be included because it is to often an excuse, ala Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, etc.

I think the “playing to an audience known to be predisposed …” is a gray area simply because most likely everything we do is to play to our audience.

I can live with this as a fuzzy logic definition but it is still important to find a criteria to which we both agree, and then can agree on an instance when we see it. I think we will need to disagree on the comic effect side.

Having said that, we will continue to disagree on the Durbin statement, and here is why. To your point, it is difficult to see demonization when it is from “our side” against our enemies. I think we will disagree because of our different perspectives and beliefs, from your particular interest in and readings about Russian gulags and your opinion on torture etc, and my admitted ignorance on Gulags and difference of opinion on torture. We have a different perspective. This comment probably underscores you commentary about the lack of civil discourse, and the need to call out the demonization that “our side” does. I think this also underscore the difficulty we will have in actually changing the discourse in America. One of the things I have always believed, is that I cannot change any one else. I can only change myself.

Now, having said that. I agree that demonization is detrimental to the person/organization doing it. I will take the current republican administration as case in point. I think the overblown “they will let terrorists win” meme has lessened their credibility, and hurt their cause in the long run. Rudy Giuliani’s bid for president, I think, has shown that. To that point, I do think Durbin’s comment was detrimental to his cause – because his rhetoric got in the way of his message.

I agree that the climate of discourse in America is very negative, and hurtful to the organizations and individuals that go nuclear in their rhetoric. Of course much of message is in the receiving, and how we receive it. I find that digs at republicans are less objectionable to me – because I tend to agree with them. Digs at democrats are much more objectionable, because I disagree with them. It is all to easy to jump on any negative statement by the other side, and blindly follow our own.

So the next question Kenny, is what to do to change the rhetoric in America. We can think of great grandiose plans to vote in only those types of politicians that don’t demonize, and have a positive rhetoric. We could agree to call out those of our own groups that do it. This of course is a challenge. On the other hand, if the only answer is to “not listen” as you so describe in the second to last paragraph, then I think we have a weak answer.

I guess I am looking for a better set of actions other then definite it and don’t listen. In this climate, fools like me aren’t armed with sufficient armor or weaponry to take on the establishment. So here is the challenge. What do you do about it?

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Jim r said...

Now, Kenny, let me point out a couple of things. I first read the start of this post on “All Things Beautiful” I personally think that is why you used the Durbin example -- You were playing to the crowd. Hmmm. Let me also point out you obliquely use comments like “if you were in the left-hand half of the American Left, I suspect that you would react to being called “Osama” with rather less outrage and hurt feelings than if one of your fellow Kossites were to call you “Dubya.”” At what point does this cross over into demonization? After all, you exaggerate, associate with iconic evil, play to your audience, etc. The only thing I can’t accuse you of in this statement, is imputation of evil motives. Except, and until you make the comment about aiding and abetting the enemy and the New York Times. Ok, call out complete, on with other discussion. But I know that since you were doing that for comic effect, it must not be demonization.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Jim r said...

man that is one long post.


Post a Comment

<< Home