Monday, February 11, 2008

On Demonization

Okay, I just put up a series of six long posts having to do with the rhetorical tactic of demonization and why I am appalled when I see people indulging in it. The six posts need to be read in order, if you're interested at all...but of course, this being a blog, "in order" means, counterintuitively, "from bottom to top." So here to help you is a table of contents:

I. The Tactic
II. The Nature of Hatred
III. Hatred and the Inability to Learn
IV. Hatred and the Motives of the Hated
V. Guilt and Stupidity
VI. In the End, You Are What You Hate

Now, I have a special warning for my friend the Ghost, whose vigorous give-and-take with me wound up pushing me to think through this issue so carefully:

My dear Ghost, I love ya, but this series is about demonization, NOT about George W. Bush and the Republicans. It's not about Guantanamo. It's not even about Dick Durbin. It is about demonization. I picked Durbin simply and solely because his unhinged rant was one of the best examples of demonization I've seen in a long time. But if I had written exactly this same series of posts in the mid-'90's, I haven't the slightest doubt that the starring roles in my examples would have been played by unhinged Republicans ranting about the Great Satan Bill Clinton -- and the people who, like the politicians providing my examples, were swamped with Clinton-hatred, would have been filling my comments with desperate attempts to prove that I was wrong about demonization because Bill Clinton Really Truly Is That Evil.

Well, I'm not gonna let that happen. So, again, I love ya, but any comment in which you sail off ranting about how terrible Republicans in general are and Bush in particular is, is a comment that I will ruthlessly delete. The topic is demonization. Stick to it, or stay on the sidelines. (I hope when you read this the tone that comes through is mildly exasperated affection, not bitch-slapping annoyance.)


At 1:58 PM, Blogger Jim r said...

OK, so let me make sure I understand your definition of deionization. Demonization is a negative exaggeration intended to make someone else look evil. This exaggeration does not include rhetoric intended for comic relief, or which is so obvious that a reasonable person would know that it is an exaggeration.

Is calling someone stupid demonization?
Is calling someone immoral demonization?
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?
Is repeatedly accusing someone of something they didn’t do demonization?
Is repeatedly saying this person will do something bad, even though there is no evidence supporting the accusation, demonization?
Does tying obviously charged words like Nazi or gulag automatically make it demonization?

Sounds like “you may be a demonizer if…”

While I agree with much of your post regarding how hatred and demonization hurts the person doing it, I think that your example is on the weak side. There are much more blatant examples of demonization from both the left and the right. Most of the accusations against dubya could be considered demonization, if you didn’t believe they were actually true. Most of the accusations against the left of “they will let terrorists win” is demonization, and as bad as that against dubya.

One reason I want to make sure that we agree on the definition is that, as you know, a good operational definition should be one specific enough that everyone would agree that a given instance fits or does not fit the definition. A good operational definition should have specific criteria, a way to test the definition, and a decision of whether or not an item meets the definition.

I think we may need to work on the definition of demonization a little bit. I personally think that the comic effect part should not be part of demonization. It is to much of a “get out of jail free card.” All one has to do is say, it was satire, or for comic relief. Of course, that is in the eye of the beholder. Your example of Rush Limbough using the word “feminazi” might fall under this category. I would consider it demonization, he would way it was for comic effect.

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. 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.”

Was this intended to whip up support, you bet, was it a negative imagery, you bet, but I do not think it was demonization. This was not aimed at a any one individual or group of individuals. It was an opinion that the actions at Guananamo were torture. That opinion can and is being debated, and will for a long time. Note: you and I differ on that opinion.

The other thing we need to consider is in the intent. I think we may agree that if the intent is to smear someone outright, it is demonization. “They are worse than Nazis” is certainly demonization. If the intent is to change someone’s mind that something is bad, and charged words, like Nazi, are used, without specifying someone in particular, is it demonization? “I think these activities are as bad as what the Nazis did” This is more of a gray area.

I also find it interesting to note that Durbin did apologize for those remarks, and you did not note that apology in your description. He seemed to learn from his mistakes. Does that make him smarter?

At 7:25 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...


Man, I've missed these conversations.

I don't have internet at the new apartment (can't afford it) and I'm getting ready to have six kids descend upon me for my weekend; so I'm not going to start answering the comment 'cause then I won't be able to stop. Very thought-provoking, though. I'll get back to it after the weekend's over and the kids have gone home.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Oh, Jim, you're absolutely right that I should have pointed out that Durbin apologized; and I have updated the first paragraph of the first post in the series accordingly. Thanks for pointing that out to me.

At 7:35 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

One last quick thing before I make dinner: the demonization is not in Durbin's catalog of specific things his source saw. (I don't think Durbin was being very responsible there, but his fault in that paragraph is special pleading, not demonization.) The demonization is in the following paragraph:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.

That is indefensible, and in my opinion it does nobody any credit to attempt to defend it. But I'll explain more of what I mean after this weekend.

Hope that helps at least a little.


At 10:25 AM, Blogger Jim r said...

Kenny, good luck with the bunch of kids, hope your little place can handle it.

We agree that the statement in question is what we disagree about. I do not see it as demonization, you do. That is why I think we first need to agree on the precise definition of demonization.

We can also disagree on whether or not Durbin should or should not have even described the treatement.

That is more of a public policy debate. I think the public needs to know how prisoners are being treated, and need to make the determination of whether that is torture or not, and if it is legal or not. Then and only then can an informed public debate happen. Keeping it secret, I think, is really bad policy, and determintal to the US in general.

Back to demonization. I am sure there are lots of statements we will agree are demonization, and lots of statements we will disagree on. I suspect that our own political beliefs, like it or not, will come into play here, as will our understanding of evil doers in history.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...


Big response coming shortly, but to your most recent points:

1. I don't have any problem with Durbin's describing the treatment, except for the very serious problem of special pleading -- that is, he left out a bunch of stuff (the average weight gain, the treatment of the prisoners' personal copies of the Koran, the quality of food, etc.) that (a) were just as real and just as relevant as was the treatment to which he objected, and that (b) would have made instantly obvious how absurd were his attempts to paint the U.S. staff as being like the gulags or of denying the humanity of the prisoners. But my objection here is not to what he said, but to what he so carefully (and dishonestly) did not say.

2. I absolutely agree with you that the public needs to know, in general, what sorts of tactics we will use. We're on the same page there.

3. I agree that our political allegiances will affect what we see as demonization, but as I will argue shortly, I think in America it affects it in the wrong direction: the fact that somebody is on your own side should make you less willing to tolerate such tactics, not more willing.


Post a Comment

<< Home