Sunday, 11 September 2011

Demonisation, Criticism and Politics

I've been disturbed to notice the proliferation of the term "demonisation" in political discussion. Of late, at least here in the UK, it seems to be used primarily to describe a reaction to Muslims allegedly brought about by the "war on terror". In this context the term "demonisation" is an alternative to the invocation of "Islamophobia".

However, having noted this, I must confess I am somewhat at a loss of what specific meaning the term "demonisation" is supposed to have. It clearly implies a reference to a form of criticism of some group of persons that involves casting unjustified stigma upon them. In this context it might perhaps be clear if Gypsies were characterised as a group that tend to be "demonised" in the sense that they are scapegoated in many societies in many distinct ways and treated thus as a source of social problems.

The point about the use of "demonisation" in reference to Gypsies would be that here there is a larger social threat being suggested to exist by virtue of their presence, a threat that you might perhaps summarise in short-hand as indicating that their influence is taken to ensure that there will be moral decay or degeneration due to their baleful influence. Now, if I am right to suggest that this is the core of the term then what comes out from it is a sense of what might be involved in claiming that a group was suffering from such "demonisation".

However, when we move on from the case of Gypsies to more contemporary examples of how the term gets used in political discussion we find a more difficult problem. Assuming that I have correctly identified the core notion at issue in the accusation that a group is being "demonised" a problem emerges concerning whether there is any means of ascertaining the truth of the accusation. After all, during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, groups of people argued about who it was that the victims were. In the West some suggested that it would be "anti-Serb" to attack the actions of the Serbs and one group even referred to the Serbs as, and I quote, "the white niggers of Europe". Quite apart from the offensive terminology here the suggestion that the Serbs were being "demonised" was, at least for a time, an effective way of disarming criticism of their activities.

Given this point it would appear important to find a way to state a justifiable use of the term "demonisation" if it is to be used in the first place. Some types of criticisms of groups, even systematic ones, surely are justified whilst others are not. How is the line here drawn? It has to be done by reference to how the members of said group have been engaging not merely in apparently displaying characteristics of moral decay by their mere "presence" but by some actual actions.

So if there is a clear sense in which it would be wrong to "demonise" Muslims today this would surely consist in the point that whilst some people who are Muslims have engaged in actions worthy of being condemned (terrorism for instance) that this is not a constitutive part of being a Muslim any more than being Jewish or even a Zionist is equivalent to agreeing with all the actions of the State of Israel. Interestingly, though, whilst the accusation of "demonisation" is made with regard to some types of criticism of Muslims it is rarely used, or used by different groups, with regard to Israelis or Jews.

And this points to a further facet of the problem with the term being used since it appears to indicate a relationship has already been asserted with some group of people such that we can assent to the view that they have been victimised. Perhaps this is as much as to say that the problem with the term appears to consist in the fact that it appears towards the end of a process of political reasoning and is used after the criteria of identification of victims have already, in our view, been met by said group. Which may be as much as to say, not that the understanding of victims is relativistic but that the use of terms to indicate recognition of their status may include something circular.

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