John Buell

Democratic Discourse and the Politics of Demonization

Do we need enemies? This question occurred to me as I read that two Muslims in London had allegedly hacked to death an off duty British soldier and proclaimed this act revenge for the killing of Muslims abroad. Though the violence was unspeakable, the discourse surrounding it might yield some vital questions and insights.

Commenting on the London atrocity, constitutional law blogger Glenn Greenwald complained about the Western media’s near unanimous characterization of the murder as an act of terror: Greenwald made clear that the act was despicable and indefensible. However, “labeling the violent acts of those Muslim Others as “terrorism” – but never our own – is a key weapon used to propagate this worldview [that Islam is a uniquely violent force]. The same is true of the tactic that depicts their violence against us as senseless, primitive, savage and without rational cause, while glorifying our own violence against them as noble, high-minded, benevolent and civilized (we slaughter them with shiny, high-tech drones, cluster bombs, jet fighters and cruise missiles, while they use meat cleavers and razor blades). These are the core propagandistic premises used to sustain the central narrative on which the War on Terror has depended from the start (and, by the way, have been the core premises of imperialism for centuries).”

Greenwald correctly identifies the psychic function served by the use and misuse of the label “terrorist.” It justifies a messianic narrative in which many US citizens are heavily invested. However troubled our economy may be now, as a nation we have the institutional capacity to transform ourselves and the world The belief that we are attacked for what we are — a free and democratic people — rather than what we do in the world helps buttress this sense of destiny and moral rectitude. But Greenwald’s work raises a further question for me. From where does this psychological need constantly to affirm one’s purity of motive and historical mission arise? Is it some constant of human nature? Will we have to live in a world where all of us are choosing up sides, finding and labeling enemies to give purpose to our lives and then declaring permanent war on those enemies? Is pointing out the logical inconsistencies on which this framing is often based enough to put at end to it?

William Connolly, author of Identity/Difference, points out that “identity is relational and collective. My personal identity is defined through the collective constituencies with which I identify or am identified with by others (as white, male, American, a sports fan) it is further specified by comparison to a variety of things I am not.”

Identity in short depends not only on who we are but also on who we are not. But the need for identity coupled with its dependence on that which is different often occasions some anxiety.

This very need for identity, grounded in the human incompleteness without any social form, in our need to reduce common life to easily absorbed rules and rituals, in the need to coordinate our activities, can often impel us to describe the differences on which we depend in a way that gives privilege or priority to us.

One way to diminish the validity and strength of difference and therefore to buttress the sense of the finality and self-sufficiency of our own identity is to construct that which is different as other, a danger to ourselves. Thus Tocqueville characterized the Americans of his day as a Christian nation, contrasting this core identity with that of atheists, who were deemed to be restless, egoistic, and amoral by virtue of lacking the source on which morality depended.

Such a sense is amplified by conceiving of morality itself as an absolute standard handed down to us by God or by some form of purportedly universal reason. Human history becomes a march toward the eventual realization of that standard. “We” recognize this standard while those who question any aspect of that standard or challenge our claims to moral truth are evil relativists. Thus Cal Thomas, a leading voice of American neoconservatism, once suggested: “Abandoning an absolute ethical and moral standard leads irresistibly to the absence of ethics and morality. Each person determines his own ethical/moral code. That’s anarchy.”

But if this tendency to demonize is part of the human predicament, so too is a capacity to recognize and combat it. We must have some identity, but we need not hold those identities as absolute security blankets. And here I use security in its older sense not simply of freedom from physical harm but freedom from the cares or concerns provoked by the sense that our way is not the only way.

No single religious or ethical perspective can claim a monopoly on the ways to become attentive to and resist demonization.  A claim of proof of exclusivity on behalf of any could constitute its own form of demonization. Nonetheless, several have made exemplary contributions. The Catholic social gospel, in some ways a precursor of Liberation Theology, sees the greatness of a society in its willingness to provide opportunity and a generous social safety net for all. Bad behavior is seen as a matter of social circumstances.

The esteemed midcentury Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr supported these social welfare objectives but worried about just how inclusive this gospel’s practitioners were. Both Thomas and the advocates of the social gospel were quite confident they knew what bad behavior was. Niebuhr argued that conventional moralists exaggerate the degree of sin in specific violations of the moral code even as they deny the damage those codes themselves often inflict. Think about “scientific” racism and the atrocities to which it contributed.

Thus his famous — albeit itself problematic today – aphorisms: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but his inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” And “Democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems. “

For some contemporary theorists, viewing democracy in terms of its prophetic role may be less compelling than affirming its positive potential.  Thus Jane Bennett, author of Vibrant Matter, suggests: ”the starting point of ethics [may be] less the acceptance of [the impossibility of full knowledge and control] and more the recognition of human participation in a shared, vital materiality … The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perpetually open to it.”

Far from being destructive relativists, these theorists do have a strong ethical sense, but not one based on absolute imperatives. Rather they see ethical awareness as flowing not from an edict of God or some absolute imperative. In his most recent work, A World of Becoming, Connolly maintains it is “anchored first and foremost in presumptive care for the diversity of life and the fecundity of the earth. ... Our goal is to intensify or amplify a care for this world that already courses through us to some degree … One advantage of an ethic of cultivation in a world of becoming is that it can bring this care to bear on new and unexpected situations.”

Rather than treating all cultures as uniform and equal entities, these theorists celebrate their multiple and expanding contours and valorize those that allow as much space as possible for difference to thrive.

If we are to limit the urge and the opportunity to demonize, democracy will play a key role.  It is a means to and sustained by a conversation among these and other contrasting pleas for inclusiveness.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2013

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