Demonization and Designer Labels
Let's discuss the civility covenant first.
The covenant was signed by a hundred or so Christian leaders. (Some of them have been rather famously uncivil themselves or have fomented incivility via their public lives. But I digress.) The most important aspect of this is not what it is -- a vague, bipartisan, ecumenical left/right call for people to be nice, but what it isn't. The covenant concludes:
We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God's will for our nation and our world.
I don't mean to diminish the importance of saying this. It is the very least that we expect from our religious leaders. But frankly it is just too easy to say we intend to be good -- without having to define bad. That is one reason why I think that this approach (absent any related, well-defined, proactive effort) is more a part of the problem than it is the solution.
While it is certainly possible that I missed something, as far as I know, none of the signers of the covenant have ever specifically identified any of the behaviors or language they are covenanting not to engage in. More importantly, they have not publicly criticized any of those who do them all the time. Of course leaders and members of the Religious Right have been the leading practitioners of of the politics of demonization and eliminationism that have brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. But one would not know that to read the civility covenant.
(Would it be uncivil to define incivility; name those who engage in it; and tell them to cut it out?)
In recent years, we have been subjected to such evasions of reality as serial false equivalences between the right and left regarding civility. Among the many problems with this stance is that people who make such claims also often fail to distinguish between incivility and demonization.. (Put another way, there is a vast difference between rudeness and death threats.)
In 2008, I gave an interview to Bill Berkowitz in anticipation of the publication of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. I pointed out some of the ways in which the man said to epitomize evangelical moderation at the time -- was far from it. (I should probably have added that he had engaged in what to this day remains the most outrageous public hypocrisy regarding incivility in recent memory.)
[during the elections of 2004] Rick Warren wrote an inflammatory letter about the presidential contest to thousands of evangelical pastors. This letter revealed him to be a fierce partisan, who epitomized the worst aspects of the Religious Right. He declared five issues to be "non-negotiable" and those they "are not even debatable because God's word is clear on these issues.'" These included abortion, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and euthanasia. He later said he regretted the letter but that he had not changed his views.
The next day, reporter Dan Gilgoff asked Warrren about the holocaust reference. Warren declared, lest anyone think he meant an analogy other than the Nazi holocaust:
For many evangelicals, of course, if they believe that life begins at conception, that's a deal breaker for a lot of people. If they think that life begins at conception, then that means that there are 40 million Americans who are not here [because they were aborted] that could have voted. They would call that a holocaust and for them it would like if I'm Jewish and a Holocaust denier is running for office. I don't care how right he is on everything else, it's a deal breaker for me. I'm not going to vote for a Holocaust denier...
Again, I may have missed something, but I don't recall any of the signatories of the Covenant for Civility having anything to say about Warren's nationally televised hypocrisy.
It is easy for most of us to promise to avoid incivility. It is much harder, however, for us to cope with and to confront its more ferocious and contagious cousins: demonization and eliminationism. We need look no further than the deafening silence on the part of our religious and political leaders when an Arizona pastor who last year called on his congregation to engage in imprecatory prayer against president Obama who was coming to town. That pastor encouraged one parishoner to openly carry an automatic rifle while protesting outside of Obama's speech -- which he did. I don't recall the avatars of civility having anything to say about that either.
Meanwhile, it did not take long, according to the Christian Post, for one top evangelical leader to bug out of the civility covenant.
Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, asked that his name be removed from "A Covenant for Civility," which was released in March.
And what was it that caused him to disassociate himself from this august group's uncontroversial statement? He didn't want to be even remotely associated with anyone who favored abortion rights and marriage equality.
Bill Clinton's Designer Label
Crooks and Liars has a report, (quoting from ABC News reporter Jake Tapper) on Bill Clinton's denunciation of "demoninization" tactics by the GOP and the far right; Rush Limaugh's response and Clinton's rejoinder:
In my exclusive "This Week" interview, former President Bill Clinton told me Rush Limbaugh's assertion that Clinton had "set the stage for violence in this country" and that "any acts of future violence" would be on Clinton's shoulders, "doesn't make any sense".
Knowing the difference between disagreement and demonization is indeed important. But nowhere in the former president's presentation (PDF) was there any mention of the need for any reciprocity of restraint. (So much for the Golden Rule); or any acknowledgement that Democrats may have contributed to this situation, and may continue to do so. In fairness, that might be hard to do when feverish vitriol and demagoguery has been aimed at the Democratic Party and its elected officials by the far right, the GOP and Fox News. But Clinton in properly denouncing demonization and offering a moving and elder statesmanlike recounting of the how he thinks we got to this crossroads in history -- still couldn't resist in his prepared remarks -- mockingly labeling the very people he was supposedly trying to defuse as (drum roll...): "hatriots."
It should come as no surprise then, that Mr. Clinton had no more advice for us than the civility covenanteers or, for that matter, Rick Warren. Demomonization is apparently only something that is done by those nasty sorts who do not believe as we do. And so it begins -- down a slippery slope in which we find ourselves doing and saying the kinds of things we denounce when others do them.
So those of us who find ourselves using labels like "extremists," "Christianists," or "American Taliban" will probably continue to do so; and we will probably be thrilled to add the sure-to-be-fashionable designer label -- "hatriots" -- to our satchels of sneers and smears.
I will conclude this essay by assuming the best of intentions on everyone's part. But I will also observe that no one has taken any responsibility for their contributions to the situation or for their lack of leadership in addressing it.
Demonization and Designer Labels | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)
Demonization and Designer Labels | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)