Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

Nadia Kaabi-Linke / A Short Story of Salt and Sun

Nadia Kaabi-Linke / A Short Story of Salt and Sun

Demonization : Nathaniel Berman

I. The Discourse of Demonization

One of the most powerful tactics in current political debates is to accuse one’s opponent of “demonizing” the target of his or her critique. The charge almost always forces the other on the defensive – ranging from the petulant (“I wasn’t demonizing, I was just making specific criticisms”) to the childish (“I’m the one who’s demonizing?! You’re the one who’s demonizing!”). The charge of demonization is hard to shake: like a deer in the headlights, the alleged demonizer is paralyzed, exposed in an unseemly outburst of emotion, in relation to which all responses seem worse than futile. The more vehemently one defends against the charge, the more one proves its aptness: by definition, vehemence will never refute a charge whose main brunt is that of unacceptable excess. One suddenly finds oneself perceived as having made an inadvertent, perhaps fatal, social gaffe, like a bodily emission at a bourgeois dinner party, or fury or lust in a philosophy seminar. And it is too late: one cannot easily shake off this perception, unjust or not. Alleged demonizers may find that they have been subtly banished to the margin or exterior of polite society, be it the academy, the family, or the international community. Paradoxically, alleged demonizers find their claims delegitimized by a discursive maneuver that I propose to call the “demonization-of-demonization.”

Charges and counter-charges of demonization proliferate around the globe in widely disparate conflicts. In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans each accuse the other of demonizing them; a Republican congressman adds the specific charge that Democrats “demonize Christians.” To the North, supporters and opponents of Quebec separatism fling reciprocal charges of demonization. In South Asia, Hindus and Muslims join the fray. In relation to the Middle East, it perhaps goes without saying, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian publicists routinely complain of demonization by the other. From the eastern reaches of Europe, Ukrainians and Russians join the chorus of mutual recrimination. And, to return to the U.S., critics of American policy in relation to Ukraine, ranging from the left-wing journal The Nation to Henry Kissinger, denounce the demonization of Vladimir Putin.

As even this cursory review shows, the charge of demonization can be used to deflect even the most seemingly justified of criticisms. I first noticed this phenomenon during the Balkan wars of the ‘90s. Defenders of Serbia often deployed the charge of “demonization” in response to criticism of the systematic atrocities committed against Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians: “stop demonizing us,” I heard them say, “we are a Western country, with museums, universities, symphony orchestras, outdoor cafes.” This is a very telling response – by opposing demonization with the claim that “we are the same as you,” it highlights a key feature of the charge of demonization, that it is a projection of the other as … “Other.” This feature resonates with the Aramaic term used in traditional Jewish texts about the demonic realm, “Sitra Aḥra,” — literally and simply, the “Other Side.”

The discourse of demonization, so powerful in our contemporary political discourse, is a patently theological discourse on its face, albeit in a dialectically complex manner. If the charge of demonization is accurate, the perpetrator has advanced a form of metaphysical dualism, whose protean forms and controversial status have been elaborated by theologians for centuries. In its most unequivocal forms, such a dualism has often been tagged in the Western tradition with the label of Manichaeism, already denounced as a heresy by the Church Fathers. Nevertheless, some form of the opposition between the divine and the demonic was for many centuries a staple of mainstream theology in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

To be sure, upon first consideration, those making the charge of demonization seem to be objecting to political theology in the name of the prudential calculations of secular reason – as Kissinger declared, “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy.”1 The alleged demonizer’s claims are thus cast as irrational precisely because demonization is a theological gesture – and therefore inadmissible in a rational political debate. The conflict between the demonizers and their unmaskers would thus be participating in the ongoing struggle between irrational religion and rational secularity, ongoing in the West at least since the Enlightenment, and made more urgent in our time by the much-vaunted “return of religion.”

Like all unequivocal assertions about secularization, however, any such claim should be treated with skepticism. First, I note that Romantic critiques of Enlightenment rationalism, in their many avatars over the past couple of centuries, have almost always been accompanied by a revival of thinking about the demonic – and that Romanticism is notoriously difficult to situate in linear histories of secularization. Moreover, one could extend this observation about the revival of thinking about the demonic to almost every period of critical reflection on a prior wave of rationalist triumphalism – stretching at least as far back as late medieval mystical reactions to neo-Aristotelianism, to which, indeed, the Jewish term Sitra Aḥra, the Other Side, may be traced.

More importantly, however, the force of the charge of demonization itself draws on theological power. I note that the power that the charge wields is often such that it comes to function, by itself, as though it were a decisive argument, as though unmasking the opponent as a demonizer discredited any claims he or she might make. This ultimate ad hominem charge thus works not only against specific points, but against the very participation of the speaker in the society of acceptable interlocutors. When the charge of demonization, without further ado, acquires this kind of power against ideas and persons, it far transcends the rationalist demand for non-metaphysical argumentation for which it purports to stand – and, in effect, constructs a realm of heresy and heretics. In short, the charge becomes a mirror-image of that which it attacks, thus meriting the appellation “demonization-of-demonization.”

The theological roots of this power lie in the cognitive expulsion by rationalist theology of the Devil and his minions, as well as those who claim to directly combat them, the most recent Western wave of which was initiated by late nineteenth century Central European Jewish and Protestant liberal theologians. I would, moreover, suggest that some such expulsion has always been central to the polemical establishment of rationalist theologies. No matter where one is situated in the play of demonization and demonization-of-demonization, then, one becomes a participant in a long history of theological disputation, or rather in one or more of several traditions of such disputation.

Nevertheless, I would acknowledge that the dialectics of demonization may still be associated with the complex vicissitudes of secularization, but only if the latter are considered in all their complexity and ambiguity. The latter appear not only when one considers the unresolved contests between the dramatically opposed perspectives of a Karl Löwith and a Hans Blumenberg, a Carl Schmitt and a Talal Asad. Rather, a focus on the dialectics of demonization can force a reconsideration of those perspectives themselves and can thus compel a revision in our understanding of secularization – to consider secularization’s “Other Side,” as it were.

Given the volume of talk about “political theology” in the academy in the past couple of decades, it may seem surprising that the fundamentally theological dialectics of demonization have not received more critical attention. One clue to this phenomenon may lie in the fact that much of what we call “theory” in the humanities over the past half century has consisted of attempts to think about Otherness — from Adorno to Derrida, from Lacan to Irigaray, and so on. Yet, these discourses have often themselves been attempts to theorize rather darker cultural artifacts, drawn from literature, visual art, religious texts, and so on, often from the early twentieth century, in which the demonic explicitly appears in one guise or another. Thus, from the perspective of the historical dialectics of demonization, even those theoretical discourses concerned with “the Other,” “Difference,” and “the Negative” may be viewed as domestications of their raw, indeed far rawer, material in which alterity takes the more stubborn, concrete form of the demonic — rather than that of conceptual abstraction or even psychoanalytic diagnosis.

1. Henry Kissinger, ‘To Settle the Ukraine Crisis, Start at the End’, Washington Post, March 5, 2014.

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