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Demonizing Our Opponents

A Threat to Public Discourse

Christopher B. Kulp

As the November election approaches, we brace ourselves for a barrage of last-minute campaigning. If recent history is any guide, much of it will be negative.

Although many people have decried the general deterioration of civility in U.S. politics, I am especially concerned about one way public discourse often goes wrong: our proclivity to demonize our opponents. By that I mean characterizing those with whom we disagree as morally bankrupt, or at least as approximating some such deplorable state.

Even though demonization has been around since time immemorial, I and many others think we are seeing more of it recently. Consider, for example, the tenor of discourse between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, between AIDS activists and animal-rights proponents, between environmentalists and loggers, African Americans and whites, immigrants-rights advocates and their anti-immigration opponents.

All too often, exchanges among these and other such groups deteriorate into character assassination, smear campaign, and abuse. There are good reasons for concern about this sort of thing.

One reason is the adverse effect demonizing our opponents has on the kind of public discourse democracy needs to succeed. Democratic societies require the free exchange of ideas among a populace willing and able to make informed judgments about them. But if we fail to engage in the rational examination of ideas and seek instead to work our will through vilification and personal attack, the democratic process is subverted.

We become less able to see the strengths and genuine weaknesses of alternative viewpoints. Public discourse becomes more focused on the acquisition of power and less on the pursuit of truth, more enamored of sensationalism and less attentive to the deeper issues of our times, more interested in personalities and less in the plausibility of the policies these persons advocate. Emotionalism usurps reason; cant and prejudice prosper — and democracy suffers a dearth of meaningful social dialogue.

There are also more directly moral reasons for concern. To demonize someone goes beyond saying he is mistaken or misguided. It is, as a rule, to denounce his character and to do so in moral terms. The moral status of one's character, however, is closely tied to the moral status of one's intentions. Thus, it is a conceptual confusion to say that a person's character is evil even though her intentions are good.

But now we enter murky waters: Judging a person's intentions is a notoriously difficult business. For one thing, intentions are often remarkably opaque to others. For another, even if we know what a person's intentions are, it is frequently hard to assess them.

Suppose, for example, that someone advocates a social policy with which you strongly disagree — say, capital punishment — and grounds her judgment on a well-developed theory of justice that you nonetheless reject: retribution. Are her intentions, and thus her character, evil? And what should she say about you?

Now, none of this is to imply that we are incapable of rendering sound assessments of moral character. Nor is it to imply that there aren't genuinely bad people or that we should refrain from denouncing evil when we see it. I'm quite confident, for example, that Adolf Hitler was a bad man, and I would argue that we have a duty to say so.

But Hitler is an easy case. Considering how liable we are to error in more ordinary cases and considering the gravity of what is at stake, wisdom counsels caution. A person's reputation, well-being, and life's prospects may well be jeopardized when we malign her.

Furthermore, the respect that is everyone's moral due demands that we take seriously our responsibility to avoid such injustice. When we lightly make injurious allegations or, worse, when we do so for mere tactical advantage, we do wrong — sometimes grievous wrong.

Finally, demonizing our opponents invites a like response, which in turn degrades public discourse. Publicly attack a person's character, and he will likely attack yours, probably with little concern about the accuracy of his charges. Then you become outraged, and off we go.

The result is an escalating spiral of hostility that does more than harm you and your antagonist; it contributes to a climate of public ill will and distrust that magnifies our differences, hardens opposition, and makes productive dialogue immeasurably more difficult.

I am not calling for public discourse to emulate the etiquette of an afternoon tea; the issues are too complex, the need for vigorous pursuit of truth too important, the claims of those marginalized by society too pressing to wish other than a tradition of robust public discussion.

What I am calling for is more responsible treatment of our opponents, even when our disagreements run deep. That means retaining a healthy appreciation of our own fallibility in judging others and the ends they endorse. That means according our disputants the respect and consideration with which we desire to be treated.

There is nothing weak or submissive, nothing traitorous or dishonorable, in showing decency to others. On the contrary, morality requires it, as does the welfare of our embattled democracy.

Christopher B. Kulp is an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University and serves on the Center Steering Committee. He is the author of The End of Epistemology (Greenwood Press, 1992), editor of Realism/Antirealism and Epistemology (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming), and is working on a book on the theory of moral knowledge.

This article was originally published in Issues in Ethics - V. 7, N. 3 Fall 1996.


Original Post
Jack Hammer posted:

Well that was a waste of ink.


 "Publicly attack a person's character, and he will likely attack yours, probably with little concern about the accuracy of his charges".

Just what Crashton kept doing so I blocked him. I know he still does it but I don't see it and I just consider the source. I don't think I have ever attacked him personally. IF I ever did it was after he called me he loves to do.


Last edited by Jutu
Jutu posted:
Jack Hammer posted:

Well that was a waste of ink.


 "Publicly attack a person's character, and he will likely attack yours, probably with little concern about the accuracy of his charges".

Just what Crashton kept doing so I blocked him. I know he still does it but I don't see it and I just consider the source. I don't think I have ever attacked him personally. IF I ever did it was after he called me he loves to do.


Proof of your claims? Show me where I attacked you personally. I'll wait.

While Mr. Kulp waxed eloquently about his concern for the American, or worldly, declining discourse of political opinion or debate, he fails to attribute one  huge factor contributing to the decline.  The News Media should be impartial and without favoritism in coverage and informing the public a purveyor of unbiased information from which the public/people can make informed decisions regarding.  Of late, maybe even all along, there has been a loss of impartiality and more polarization as a more determined, obviously liberal biased, group have assumed editorial control over content and even ownership of media outlets.  

As Kulp indicated the demonization of political opponents has likely been around all along but the contemporary approach the media has taken has been amplification of one sides opinions over the other and taking a decidedly obvious position on one's side over the other.  In the case of the media it's been liberal or progressive over conservative and Democrat over Republican and they have not been satisfied with mere reporting (which could be argued they haven't done in a long while) but have joined in with the demonization of political enemies and opponents in an attempt to skew the argument and squash political opposition and debate.  

I, as an independent (admiringly conservative) voter, am uncomfortable at times with some of the statements or methods of President Trump but Trump is no polished politician or diplomat but a man accustomed to winning and overpowering and many or much of his responses are of the nature of fighting back against, many times, unfounded and highly speculative politically motivated attacks.  Given the high profile, politically motivation,  of the attackers and outright outlandish fake accusations I cannot fault anyone for the type responses that President Trump issues as some are from a predictable and understandable source.  While he (Trump) may not have the polished discretion of a seasoned diplomat he obviously brandishes a braggadocios demeanor that would be expected of a Billionaire Businessman accustomed to controlling debate and arguments.  At times it may seem unpresidential which it is because most Presidents, while they control the conversation, most or all others retreat from conflict and retaliation whereas Trump thrives from both.  

Trump, as a politician, is an abnormality, but a refreshing deviation from the expected political policy of taking whatever outlandish accusations are made and attempting to deflect rather than confront and disagree.  As a result the Media has become weaponized and is used in an aggressive and determined way against a political opponent (Conservatives like Trump) who cannot be counted on to roll over and take it then go away.  Demonizing is the least of what the Media and most Democrats are doing with respect to Donald Trump in classifying him as a White Nationalist and Racist.  Trumps historical business practices, which was the bulk of his life before his entry into the arena of politics, were anything but racist and were based upon achievement rather than color and the results of Trumps political leadership has been a benefit to people of color and minorities across the board.  Historic low unemployment and historic employment numbers of minorities that are in total stark opposition to anything previous Presidents, of either party, have done.  

Democrats, and the media as a determined accomplice, have sought to demonize President Trump using the harshest and most outlandish accusations, that of being a Racist, partner to Putin, or a Communist Russian Spy plant in attempts to disqualify him from a position/office that he was legally elected to by our adopted political system.  Then in reply to that election the opposition, unwilling to accept the results of their candidates defeat, chose to attempt to lie and attempt a treasonous removal of the elected President.  Other attempts to further skew future elections by changing the rules were also contemplated or attempted such as elimination of the Electoral College system of choosing a President and resorting to numerical votes cast as an alternative method.  Attempts to change the system anyway but the Constitutional way specified because they knew their chances of doing it in a Constitutional manner were greatly reduced and unlikely.  

So Kulp may have written accurately but decidedly left out one huge contributing factor to the reduction of civility in the American electoral process nor does he mention how one political side has become further unhinged in their methods of campaigning and seeking political office.  He may be correct in some points but obvously seems intent on deflection away from obvious contributing factors.


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