Demonization and Designer Labels
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Apr 21, 2010 at 08:46:31 PM EST
On this site we have discussed many times -- the problems with unfair and inflammatory labeling, the dangers of demonization tactics, and how to write in fair but forceful ways when reporting on and analyzing the Religious Right in its many expressions and manifestations. (Most recently, here, here, and here.)

As a society we are struggling with broader versions of the same issues. This was well-exemplified by a recent speech by Bill Clinton and A Covenant for Civility signed by about a hundred Christian religious leaders who, while speaking for themselves and not necessarily for their institutions, hail from a wide swath of American Christianity.  These two episodes show that we have some idea of what the problem is but that we are also pretty ineffectual in how we deal with it.

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.

While he is a skilled showman, he is unable to sustain moderation in style or in substance even before a national television audience. His real self leaks out. At the [2008] Civic Forum, [featuring then-candidates Obama and John McCain and broadcast from his church] Warren highlighted the top two litmus tests of the Religious Right--abortion and same sex marriage, and described abortion as a "holocaust." Following this he called on his audience not to "demonize" people with whom they may disagree--having just compared people who have a different view on abortion to the Nazis.

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.

"I do not want my name or the Assemblies of God to be associated with persons who claim to be in the Body of Christ yet reject the moral teachings of Scripture," Wood told freelance writer and conservative Christian blogger John Lanagan.

Lanagan expects others to follow suit.

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".

Clinton marked the upcoming 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing on Friday with a major speech to the Center for American Progress, in which he warned that "the words we use really do matter, because there's this vast echo chamber, and they go across space and they fall on the serious and the delirious alike. They fall on the connected and the unhinged alike."

Conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh took to the air, Friday, after the speech and said that Clinton's remarks, which drew parallels between the anti-government sentiment in the mid-90s and present-day anti-government expressions, "just gave the kooks out there an excuse to be violent."

Responding directly to Limbaugh, Clinton told me, "The only point I tried to make was that we ought to have a lot of political dissent -- a lot of political argument. Nobody is right all the time. But we also have to take responsibility for the possible consequences of what we say. "

One of those consequences, Clinton said, was threats against public officials. "We shouldn't demonize the government or its public employees or its elected officials. We can disagree with them. We can harshly criticize them. But when we turn them into an object of demonization, you know, you -- you increase the number of threats."

Clinton added, "I worry about these threats against the president and the Congress. And I worry about more careless language even against -- some of which we've seen against the Republican governor in New Jersey, Governor Christie." A recently leaked memo from a New Jersey teachers union contained a joke suggesting that Governor Christie should die.

"I just think we all have to be careful. We ought to remember after Oklahoma City, we learned something about the difference in disagreement and demonization," Clinton said.

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.  

of the nagging about "civility".  We're essentially in a war (of words and I hope no further- although the evidence is that they are ramping up the violence) with people who seek our annihilation or destruction- the theft of freedom in the name of "Christianity"*.  The dominionists care nothing about civility- their own words show that they already come from the point of view that we have usurped their appropriate place as rulers, and that we have no rights- and that we are less than human in their eyes.  As a walkaway, I can tell you this- these people have had that viewpoint for decades (at least), and only lately have their language matched their beliefs.

Taking the moral high ground is always an act fraught with danger- because you can very easily loose while being "better" than your opponents.  It also denies us effective linguistic tools.  I think that hatriots is a very accurate and descriptive word to describe what I observe on a regular basis.  Ditto for "American Taliban"- because if you get beneath the surface and the names they use, dominionism and the Taliban are very close in practice and goals.  Indeed, a friend of mine just effectively demonstrated that in many ways there actually little difference between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam on another blog.

Maybe they don't like these words, but they are an accurate description for a large segment of the population- a VERY DANGEROUS and threatening segment.  I don't want to end up in a theocracy (and be killed or forced to leave MY homeland- and the land of my ancestors) because the leadership of those opposed to the theocrats "took the high road" and refused to use words that expose just how bad and dangerous those people really are.  You cannot have dialog with people dedicated to destroying you- like the analogy I use in this sort of discussion: any compromise between ex-slaves and their former masters will mean that the ex-slaves loose their freedom (or at least part of it).

I know you disagree with me, but I think my viewpoint is also one that people need to think about.  In my experience, it's an exercise in futility to be civil to someone who is as brainwashed and dedicated as those folks are.  Only harsh language seems to penetrate the fog- at least enough to get them to back off.  Let's put it this way- even "not interested" or "no, thank you" is often considered "please tell me more" by dominionist proselytizers.  That is an experience I've had MANY times- so much so that I dislike doing anything in the county where I live.

*-  I personally think dominionists are NOT Christian, although they preach Jesus.  What they say and do seem to violate almost all of the things that Jesus taught!

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 01:57:48 PM EST

is a form of school yard bullying that says more about the person who engages in it than the person or group being targeted.

Writ large on society, using Andrew Sullivan's made-up, meaningless epithet "Christianist" is dumb, but not quite as dumb as the inflammatory invective "American Taliban."

I invite you to consider that the appropriate analogy here is not between fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, but between the labeling and demonization terms and tactics of the far right and those of us who also practice labeling and demonization.  This is where the rubber meets the road of politics and how we can reasonably anticipate how such terms play a role in our own effectiveness.

"American Taliban" is a term of demonization that has a lot in common with tea partiers calling people like you, me and president Obama, Nazis and Communists. Even worse, actually. It suggests that the people whom we identify in this way are terrorists who should be pursued and killed. We currently have tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan doing just that. To compare any Ameican to the Taliban is a smear and arguably fighting words that at the very least ought to fairly make people wonder about the intentions of anyone who uses the term.  It is for that very reason that I would wager that few of those use this term would have the courage to use it in person.  Nor would they use it in public debate with a member of the religious right. Any audience would properly understand that it is a term of provocation with no redeeming descriptive value whatsoever and therefore they would look skeptically at the credibility of everything else the speaker might say.

I am sorry that after all this time you have not gotten the point about the problem of labeling and demonization, ArcheoBob. Using epithets is a distracting and counterproductive practice that has a tendency to distort our own understanding and undermines what we are trying to communicate about the agenda's and organizations that are the focus of this site.  

Name calling leads to lousy intellect, lousy reporting, lousy political analysis and lousy political strategy.  I know that you are concerned about dominionism, ArcheoBob. That is why I invite you to reconsider name calling as a good and appropriate way of engaging in public life.


by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 02:40:36 PM EST

I just disagree.  Labels are sometimes useful tools.  Using labels is also not necessarily namecalling.

We've talked on T2A about the NAR, the "Army of God", and other militant and violent groups (I would call bombing woman's clinics and murdering doctors terrorism!)  That compares to the Taliban in a number of ways.  There are evil Americans just as there are evil people in Afghanistan.  There are mislead people in the NAR and other dominionist groups- just as there are people who are the dupes of the Taliban.  There are more violent and less violent people in the Taliban, and there are more violent and less violent groups in dominionism.  I don't know if there are any "decent" people in the Taliban- and while I quickly say that there are a great number of brainwashed and duped people in dominionism, at the same time I would not say that there are any decent people there (I have personal experience with that).

When I was a dominionist (and member of a pentecostal/dominionist denomination), I wasn't a decent person.  I was pushy, aggressive, and thought I had the responsibility to force Jesus down the throat of everyone I met.  I had to learn just how wrong I was before I could even begin the healing for the damage they did to me- and I'm still finding things I apologize about to people from that time- over 27 years ago.  I cringe every time I think about all of the people I probably turned off to Christ.  "Holy terror" would be a good description of how I acted.

In fact, I would say that I was an EVIL person when I was in those churches.  I was also brainwashed and duped- in other words, I bought all of their lies.  I had to leave to change.  I bear the responsibility for the damage I did to others- the offenses, the insults, the put-downs, and the persecution (I did join in with others in persecuting GLBT people - with the direct support and encouragement of the preachers I followed.)

I've learned by experience that lumping dominionists together is a valid exercise- that their differences are minor compared to their goals and the damage they do to people.  I personally don't care what their personal or group beliefs are- if they're pushing to force their religion (even as the Taliban does), they're doing harm to society and people.  That's what I care about- and it makes me angry.   (That argument reminds me of the "lumpers vs splitters" argument in biological anthropology.  I am clearly a "lumper" in this discussion!)

So, American Taliban (or as I've said, Taliban II) is a valid and necessary comparison in my opinion.  The two groups are parallel in many ways.  This is a point that I think is important- and I also think that people need to think about that.

Just because the dominionists in this country are usually American, doesn't mean that they can also be terrorists (and some of them ARE!!!)

I also don't like fighting blindfolded- and taking away appropriate labels and descriptors is in a way like blindfolding me.    I'm not name-calling, and it's wrong to think of it this way.  There is a huge gulf between the dominionists and what they advocate, and what we say- unless I've been lied to as much by liberals as I was by the conservatives, and since I now know how to read and analyze, what I learn backs up what the liberal/left has been saying and disproves what I'd been taught by the "right".   They compare us to Hitler and communism- a charge that is easily disproved.  I rather think it would be difficult if not impossible for them to disprove the parallels between dominionism (especially the more violent groups) and the Taliban... or that many of their people spew hate and in the same breath claim to be patriots.

Regarding the term hatriot: it may be catchy, it might be a bit trite, but I find it extremely descriptive of the people I encounter just about every time I leave our property (the exception being when I go to school).  In my opinion, this word is like a mirror and I wish that the people I encounter who spew hate and think they're being patriotic would see themselves how I see them.  This word might just do the trick.

After all, it does accurately describe their words and actions.

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 04:32:19 PM EST

that you did not address my observation that the best analogy is between the far rightists that call people like you and me Nazis and Communists; and those of us who call those we disagree with politically and religiously, Taliban.

After you have called some conservative Christians Taliban to their faces and assessed their reactions, as an experimental pilot program if you will, you come back and tell us all about the efficacy of the term, and how long it will take for your nose to heal.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 05:58:29 PM EST

Well, you did just admit to their willingness to commit violence when we speak the truth to them.  That's a small step from terrorism (and using violence to stop dissent or free speech IS terrorism!!!)  I know too well their violence.  But allowing their violence to silence us is allowing them to WIN.

And regarding my answering your point?

Quote: "They compare us to Hitler and communism- a charge that is easily disproved.  I rather think it would be difficult if not impossible for them to disprove the parallels between dominionism (especially the more violent groups) and the Taliban... or that many of their people spew hate and in the same breath claim to be patriots."

We can disprove their claims.  They can't disprove ours.  The facts are on our side.

After all, they use lies to support almost everything they do.  Their willingness to deceive and lie has been well documented on T2A.

by ArchaeoBob on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 07:03:20 PM EST

And you really don't understand the role of "labels" as distinct from "terms."  You really do endorse and justify name calling and think it is somehow smart; somehow exposing a vast "them."  

What I meant above, is that if you use fighting words, you just might get a fight.  Fighting words are not to be confused with "truth," ArcheoBob.

Labels and demonization tactics expose no one but those who use them.  Fair and accurate terms, well used, have a chance.

by Frederick Clarkson on Thu Apr 22, 2010 at 08:33:19 PM EST

I find your characterization of what I say insulting.  Only the dominionists would find the truth about their actions "fighting words"- and I think you know that argument wouldn't stand up in court.

Frederick, we're going to have to agree to disagree.

by ArchaeoBob on Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 10:14:22 AM EST

I  agree with Archaeobob's points. I would expand on what he says in a modest way.

I think we all need to carefully and consciously examine some of our basic assumptions about what we're talking about here and what we believe to be the gravity of the rise of the religious right in this society.

Do we begin from the assumption that the current movements of the religious right are an existential threat to our democracy and our society of tolerance and inclusion, a threat that could lead to Extremely Bad Things?  Or do we believe, rather, that these movements on the right are another blip in the historical record of this country which has often seen (and survived) the rise and fall of different forms of extremism. Isn't this the basic question? Everything we read on this site is a possible clue to the answer to this question when we hold it up to the light of historical this trend, or this rhetoric or this organization something new (in terms of our American history) or is is simply another manifestation of some of the ups and downs we've experienced before. We need to study history carefully and historical analogies are important tools. And yes we need to address what is going on now in our own times without being obsessed with and misled by unhappy memories (sure, we're all exhausted by references to the holocaust). This is a big question and we'll only know the answer for sure in hindsight. There is much excellent writing on this site (by you, by Rachel Tabachnick, Bruce Wilson and others) that suggests that we're seeing something very serious going on. Certainly if you yourself write about sedition you're suggesting something far out of the ordinary.
So, when we read what's written on this website we have no choice but to seriously consider the possibility that our social traditions of tolerance and democracy are being effectively outflanked by some people with very radical and very dangerous philosophies. If we accept that premise, how far do we follow the logical conclusions that come from it? What does civility mean in that context of an existential threat?
I may sound like I accept one premise over another but I really don't know. I read what's posted on this site to better inform myself and I try to examine it all in a historical context to get clues. Either the stakes are real and very high and it's not simply business as usual, or they aren't and we can continue with our theoretical discussions. Deciding where the truth lies is a personal conclusion ....isn't it? But it is a patronizing rhetorical device to say that those who don't agree simply don't understand.

by marktypos on Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 01:14:29 PM EST

Calling people stupid names does not help us to understand what is going on or to communicate effectively with others. It is also counterproductive on many levels.  There are plenty of sites that revel in name calling and a bumper sticker mentality.  This one is not among them.

I appreciate the seriousness of your comment, and I am grateful that you are a careful reader of this site, and seem to be prepared to think creatively about the relationship between serious information and analysis and actions. So I want to take the time to address your thoughts in the context of this diary and this thread.

Those of us who say that there are serious threats from the religious right have a responsibility to communicate clearly and effectively, and most importantly to know what we are talking about. If we do know what we are talking about; and if we care about communicating respectfully with our various audiences; and if we care about building a society that defuses religious and political tensions rather than exacerbating them, it is usually possible to find the right words for the ocasion.

Those of us who use terms of hysteria, tend to be treated like we are hysterical -- or at least, less than credible. And people are right to be skeptical of people who use hysterical or willfully inflammatory words and slogans as if uttering them signifies some unquestioned "truth." So while indeed, sometimes disagreement does not constitute lack of understanding -- sometimes it does. Important decisions often turn on such distinctions.  At Talk to Action we made that distinction five years ago and we remain confident that we made the right choice.

That said, in this post I am obviously criticizing those who invoke civility as an excuse to say nothing. I think I write with some authority on the matter because I have been saying something, forcefully-but-civilly for many years.  For example, read my 1997 book Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, which deals with, among other things, identifying some of the threats to constitutional democracy, including issues of violence, language, militias, and more.  You can also follow some of the links I inserted in this post for the many critiques I make of those who abuse the idea of civility as a cudgel against those with whom they are trying to gain political advantage.  

At Talk to Action we are always interested in real discussion of how best to respond. But we know that a necessary prerequisite to such serious conversation is to stop the labeling and demonization.  

When we use real terms that connect with actual bodies of knowledge and communicate real understandings of that knowledge, we can have real conversations, whether the mode is scholarly, journalistic, or political.

by Frederick Clarkson on Fri Apr 23, 2010 at 03:46:22 PM EST

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