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.