The Cost of Demonization

Perhaps you are familiar with one of Shakespeare’s more famous sonnets, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In that sonnet, he repeatedly violates our expectations of love poetry by rejecting traditional–and exaggerated–claims of loveliness in describing his beloved: “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head….In some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath which from my mistress reeks.” You get the idea.

The gist of the poem is how false, extravagant praise actually reveals the truth behind the lie: such comparisons are hollow, such flattery is spurious, and there is no foundation to ground such obsequious language. [Shakespeare scholars will know if this was a major theme for him; I don’t, but I do know this was also a major plot point in “King Lear.”]

This sonnet came to mind when I read about a recent video posted by the actor Jon Voigt, in which he compares the “fight” for this election to the Civil War, Democrats to evil, and President-elect Joe Biden to Satan. [You can find an article about it here: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/jon-voight-trump-biden-video-election-b1721687.html]

I was going to say that such statements would be funny if…..but then I realized that in this current climate, I don’t know how to finish that sentence. The only way that such a video would be funny is if it were so unbelievably outlandish that everyone were just treating it like a joke and dismissing it as the rantings of some extremist. That, however, is not the case.

The statements in this video in particular, and the multitude of other statements that echo them, are, sadly, not unique. And in the context of disputing the results of the election–which I am not even going to discuss here–many people are taking the next step to demonize liberals, Biden-supporters and others with whom they disagree. It is this act of demonization that I take issue with here.

In the broad and deep account of human history, there are too many instances to count in which individuals and societies have used incendiary rhetoric to dehumanize groups of people, thereby justifying horrible acts of aggression and violence against them. If “they” are not human like “we” are, then they do not deserve respect, legal protection, and care. If “they” are evil, then any form of attack is justified in order that “we” prevail.

It is an incredibly dangerous and costly strategy–not only to specific people, but to a society itself. We dehumanize others at the cost of our own humanity; we fragment our own society at the cost of our own safety and health. Our country–the world–can’t successfully combat a global pandemic, climate change, poverty and hunger unless we can stand and work together, even in spite of our differences. Universal agreement on even the most important issues of our time is never going to happen, and if we only hold out a hand to–or accept a hand from–those who are like us, we will all sink in the quicksand of hatred, mistrust and alienation.

Let me say it again, we dehumanize others at the cost of our own humanity. Make no mistake; it is a doomsday strategy that will have catastrophic consequences–consequences we simply cannot afford, not now, not ever.

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