The “demonizing” tag: When is it accurate and when is it bogus?

If you pay attention to public dialogue these days, you’ll hear variations of the term “demonize” invoked frequently. I’m being demonized. You’re demonizing me. They’re going to demonize them for saying that.

Certainly demonizing behavior occurs. Here are a few common forms:

  • Irrational, angry responses to a reasonably stated opinion, replete with unsupported and nasty accusations, innuendo, and “speculation” about someone’s motivations;
  • Virulent, mob-like online attacks in response to someone’s behavior; and,
  • Blithe invocations of Hitler (or some other horrible tyrant) in response to behaviors, statements, or opinions.

At times, however, cries of “I’m being demonized” are exaggerated. They may be (mis)used as a routine tool to put others on the defensive. They may come from someone who is oversensitive to criticism. On other occasions, they may be utilized by the “provocative victim” who deliberately says something confrontational, controversial, or even outrageous, and then claims victimhood status when sharp but appropriate criticisms are issued in response.

And then there are claims of demonization that aren’t that easy to sort out, requiring a nuanced attention to detail concerning the nature of the exchange and the history between the involved parties.

The ability to understand distinctions between legitimate and not-so-legitimate claims of demonization is an important tool toward parsing the complexities of public and private discourse. In the realm of employee relations, variations of “demonize” are more likely to be invoked during overheated dialogue and emotionally laden exchanges. The demonizing tag can ratchet up bad feelings, shut down conversation, or shelve discussions over the merits of an issue while parties debate whether the label is fair.

This is not to say that we should remove the term from our vocabulary. After all, it can be an accurate description of what’s going on, as certain cable TV news stations demonstrate every night. And if someone is truly being demonized, then calling it for what is can be an appropriate defense mechanism. However, we also should be wary of its potential overuse and attentive to its role in derailing attempts at dialogue.

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Related post

Does the Healthy Workplace Bill “demonize” workplace aggressors? (2013)

One response

  1. You state that we “…should be wary of its [demonizing language, like ’bully’ and ‘sociopath’, for example] potential overuse and attentive to its role in derailing attempts at dialogue.”

    I agree, though sometimes the perpetrators of workplace abuse, and their perp-enablers and apologists, may be just tactically overreacting to “demonizing” language in order to derail the whole issue. We need to remember that anger and harsh words are normal, natural, and legitimate reactions in the face of injustice.

    I greatly favor Healthy Workplace causes of action becoming part of our formalized legal system. But also, in my encounters with the formal, adversarial legal system, I’m aware that tactical demonizing is a huge, unfortunate, and contemptible part of adversarial processes.

    In your “Does the Healthy Workplace Bill ‘demonize’ workplace aggressors? (2013)” blog, you respond to a commentator, in part, “But I opted to generalize the topic – i.e., the fact that some are making the claim that anti-bullying laws demonize the aggressors – rather than fueling what has become a more personalized exchange in other places.”

    In addition to a formal legal cause of action regarding workplace bullying, I’m all for fueling more personalized attempts at dialogue and dispute resolution.

    Workplace relationships are often likened to a kind of marriage. In fact, Gary Namie and others have emphasized the similarity of some kinds of workplace bullying to domestic psychological violence. And it seems that required family mediation and no-fault divorce have fueled a more “personalized exchange” in divorce processes, and that this has tended to neutralize some of the combative divorce adversarialism and demonization.

    If you’ve worked for, say, 10 years in a workplace relationship, I think it’s understandable that parties should not only prefer a “more personalized exchange” regarding bullying, but should accede to its being required.

    This could potentially be achieved by utilizing Restorative Justice processes incorporating some progressive modifications.
    If your workplace was in county or city or special district entities overseen by the local civil grand jury, the grand jury could review the grievance claims of the bullied and use their subpoena power to investigate and require parties to participate in community-maintaining/building restorative justice processes—kind of like our courts require youthful offenders to participate in restorative justice.

    I borrowed a video from our local Restorative Resources that depicted workplace bullying/abuse, restorative justice sessions. It can be done.

    For private companies, non-profits, etc., a bullied victim could send their details to an as-needed local committee of volunteer ombudspersons, retired attorneys, judges, business and community leaders, etc., to determine if parties should be required to attend restorative justice sessions (our local Restorative Justice board and advisory committees are already so constituted). What an honor in the furtherance of fairness/justice to volunteer on such a committee! Subpoena power or some kind of legal compulsion an issue? Make it happen. Time’s wasting. People commit suicide and homicide and loose their careers. This bit of life we have ain’t no dress rehearsal.

    The benefits?
    For the victim: resolution, possible restoration and restitution, and explanations and denouements—“An explanation is where the mind comes to rest.” (Michael Lewis)
    For the abuser: taking responsibility.
    For the community: increased safety, civility, community-building and peace.

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