On being demonized

Hillary Clinton was often said to be a very poor candidate.  She was portrayed as one of those neoliberals who support Wall Street over her own country, despite her socialist attempts to nationalize health care, to aid families, etc.  Instead, she is seen as someone who committed so many crimes she should be tried and jailed.  She endangered the country through a mishandling of emails.  She was power mad.  She oversaw the murder of political opponents.  And of the nation’s troops.

She was demonized, and that process often consisted in just reiterating some of the charges above.  And honestly the weight of those charges makes me feel as those really nothing can be done against them.  You get that many horrible things said against you, maybe a solution will be hard to find.

Let’s hope not, but whatever is true about defending oneself, let’s consider how demonization occurs.  It might tell us more about what we need to do when it starts up.

And in case you are wondering, Hillary is hardly the only person who has gotten demonized.  Among others, the writers on this blog have been characterized as moral monsters, which looks to me like a fair approximation of demonization.  And I’ve been demonized in another context, like many, many women.  So while I don’t have empirical studies to back up my characterizations, I have had the opportunity to observe what has gone on in a number of contexts.  I’m going to hope that’s enough for starters.  My examples, though, are a hodge-podge.

The thing that has struck me often with demonizers is that they seem incapable of imagining others to have non-self regarding motives.  To add a fantasy onto an example:  suppose you get the opportunity to fulfill a longterm dream.  You get to decorate Central Park with orange bunting.


As Christo and Jeanne-Claude did.

The Passion of the Christos
The Gates, in Central Park, 26 years in the making, mile upon mile of billowing fabric, is the largest artwork since the Sphinx. But what does it mean? As Jeanne-Claude might say, what a dumb question.

For the demonizer, however, you are indulging yourself in a massive display of ego, or perhaps hoping to make a lot of money.  The seemingly sheer and relatively egoless desire to create is always about something else.  And in Clinton’s case, the life-long striving to improve the lives of women and children was really about grabbing power.

In a comparable situation I came to believe my demonizers couldn’t even imagine motives other than self-interest.  And so I propose that demonizers have an impoverished range of motives, and, relatedly, they are weak in empathy.  Along with these deficits, demonizers may be people of considerable ill-will.  The ill-will may be very general, where they are prepared to cut down anyone, or it may be more specifically directed toward women in leadership roles, or blacks with civic power.

Some other possible factors:  demonizers may be able to believe what they wish.  For example, faced with a highly productive woman, they may declare that books, articles and national offices don’t count as fulfilling any part of one’s job.  (I know several women who have fought or are fighting this battle.)  Alternatively, they may decide that one is lying, and putting fake entries on one’s cv or hiding wrong-doing.  E.g., the evidence is quite clear that Clinton was not literally responsible for the deaths in Benghazi except perhaps ex officio, but that was put aside in favor of the idea that she was a murderer.  Ignorance will probably be a large factor in the creation and dissemination of the demonization.

What should we conclude from these ruminations?  Perhaps surprisingly that there is a national character flaw that got manifested in this election.  We couldn’t understand Hillary Clinton vividly enough.  This is true for those who voted against her but also for those who merely voted against him.

Of course, the issues here are much more complex.  Perhaps one can buy into a demonization without having the flaws involved in creating it.  And so on.  People wanted a change, etc, etc.  but look at what the nation in the end accepted!

So I’m not sure in this case that I believe what my reasoning has led me to.  What do you think?


27 thoughts on “On being demonized

  1. We all demonise, it’s nothing uncommon. We are taught to demonise and see it going on around us all the time, so it is easy to fall into doing it. We do it particularly when we are hurt and when we feel helpless. And it gets really bad when we do it in groups because it escalates.
    I recommend The Psychology of Demonization. A quick intro here.

  2. Thanks also for this.

    For the first presidential campaign that I remember I found the Saturday Night Live sketches nearly unwatchable. Kate McKinnon’s impression of Hilary Clinton just bothered me too much. Not only did it seem to me to an aesthetic failure, since the character was both implausible and failed to reflect any important truths about Clinton, but I couldn’t divorce it from the way Clinton was demonized by opponents.

    A few days ago one of our sweetest students came to my office wanting to talk to me about the election. He felt really bad about voting for Trump, but had to do so reluctantly because of wikileaks. I asked him what he’d heard on wikileaks that necessitated this and he shared four or five false news stories that were just wildly implausible. One involved a Clinton cabal eating food that was cooked in human bodily fluids and another leaked videos of DNC apparatchiks telling people how to vote multiple times so that the election would be rigged. It was stuff like that and he accepted them all as gospel. He also gave me the impression that everyone he knew at his church was moved by these stories.

    It hit me in a couple of ways. First, I felt completely useless with respect to my job. I teach logic and critical thinking, classes this student has taken and made As in. Second, I realized that the need to demonize Clinton was so strong that huge swaths of the electorate radically lowered their epistemic standards with respect to rumors about her. I suspect this is for three reasons: (1) they knew at some level that voting for Trump was a moral evil and but still did so for tax cuts and to give the finger to people like me and the readers of this blog and could then only deal with the cognitive dissonance by ridiculously demonizing Hilary, and (2) demonization just is part of a playbook that goes back as long as politics have existed, and (3) sexism.

    (2) and (3) come together. Roman historians almost as a matter of course accused strong women and spouses of men they didn’t like of nymphomania (e.g. Suetonius on Messalina, Procopius’ “Secret History” on Theodora) or orchestrating assassinations (e.g. Suetonius on Livia). As far as I can tell, the ability to get away with absurd demonization was much easier if the target was a woman. I want to think we’ve progressed as a culture since then, but after this election I don’t think that very much.

  3. jcogbu1@lsu.edu, I believe that the one story passed on by your student probably refers to the stuff discussed here:


    It is, of course, nonsense run through a game of “telephone”. It’s too bad that people will believe such stuff, (and belong to churches that prime them to believe that such transparent nonsense is even possibly true) but Anne’s account is a good example of why. (Wikilieaks has a lot to answer for as well.)

    But, this isn’t that much different from what I read on various left-wing blogs about Clinton being exceptionally corrupt, or an a habitual liar, or whatever. I suppose these claims are less transparently insane than the “spirit cooking” nonsense, but in fact in the same neighborhood.

  4. Delft, arguably the outcome, Trump, makes this a particularly bad case, but in a way the pervasiveness of demonizing supports my conclusion.

  5. As an Englishman married to an American who lives here in England, I’ve had the unique experience of not only seeing the circus of the U.S. elections through the disbelieving and incredulous eyes of our media, but I’ve also got to see how my wife was shocked and demoralized by the way her country is tearing itself apart.
    Over here, the general feeling is that Obama will (if there is any justice) be seen by history as one of your truly great presidents, but to see the vitriol and bile directed at him on social media and in the right wing American press, you’d think he had personally shown up on people’s doorsteps to eat their children and take away their God-given guns, whilst simultaneously depriving them of the right to affordable health care and burning the stars and stripes on their front lawns.
    This type of mouth-frothing, irrational demonization is the same reactionary nonsense spouted by the newly-emboldened Brexiteers in the UK; the rise of the rabid right wing media and their odious followers giving perceived legitimacy to the sort of outrageous bigotry that would have been seen as unacceptable only a few years ago but which now serves as a kind of political shorthand, to reach the lowest common denominators in society and whip them into an unquestioning frenzy of support for rabble rousers and unconscionable hate groups like the EDL, BNP and Britain First.

    I’m not a fan of Hillary Clinton, (had I been born on the other side of the pond, I’d have voted for Bernie Sanders) but even I was shocked at the outpouring of hatred and blatant lies used against her in the campaign. Although she didn’t really do herself any favours by dodging questions for so long about her e-mails, that hardly makes it acceptable to go to town on her character and reputation so aggressively, especially when that character assassination is being carried out by a man with so little reason to take the moral high ground.

  6. @annejjacobson
    No, it doesn’t, quite the opposite. Sorry, I could have been more explicit.
    It’s not a “national character flaw” but something that’s pervasive in certainly all of “western culture”, and probably in many others. Character is not the same as culture.
    And the conclusion that “demonizers have an impoverished range of motives, and, relatedly, they are weak in empathy” is not only wrong, but dangerous. You are saying that demonising is that thing that “those people”, you know, the ones with limited imagination who are weak in empathy, do. This is, in fact, demonising. So, unless you are also weak in empathy and have an impoverished range of motives, this disproves your conclusion. We *all* demonise, though some may do it more than others.
    At the moment e.g. I along with many other people am finding it very, very hard not to demonise Trump supporters. And this is not because I cannot imagine reasons why they might be acting in this way, but because I fear the consequences of their actions and *want* to blame them, tell them they’re horrible people etc.
    The conclusion is not only wrong, but dangerous. It leads to an us (the good people) and them (the ones who lack empathy etc.) thinking that will only harden the divisions. It also suggests that it is impossible and therefore pointless to even try and convince those demonisers not to do this, as well as absolving us, or society as a whole of any responsibility in the process.
    The opposite of demonising is trying to understand the “other” – see here (previously forgot the link). I think the divisions – while they may never disappear – can be lessened. And e.g. the lurid, pseudo-controversial presentation of information in the mainstream media has considerable responsibility for the phenomenon.

  7. I don’t think so – demonizing the enemy in the technical sense is the playbook that was deployed against Trump.

    Her problem is that individual breaches of trust bring loss of trust in the underlying relationship, and at this point in time the aggregate loss of trust in government is immense. People see themselves in a fiduciary relationship with government, whereas the legal reality is that “the King can do no wrong”, which the voting public continue to learn the hard way. Successful candidates can go on TV and seem sincere while showing the public they see it as a fiduciary relationship also.

    Firstly, she is terrible on TV. Clinton, Rubio, Cruz – they all approached the task like lawyers. They were talking the very language of callous bureaucracy, trying to prove their claim to rational legal authority. She was better than Rubio but not as good as Cruz at delivering those speeches with the right form. As such, Cruz was dismissed right away as a weasel, Rubio was jeered off the stage for forgetting his phony script, and Clinton came across like she was pissed off at there not being a settlement offer given her ironclad case..

    So if Cruz was a smug, impenetrable, calculating sophist, and Rubio still wasn’t ready to go off-book playing the role of generic republican jr, then how did Clinton come across?

    Imperious. Obama already beat her in a cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-change vs most-qualified-candidate. This time she came back, still weakened from the last bout, and thought she could walk it home with the same play against Sanders. She took some more hits on the change front, made it to the general, and when polls eventually tightened despite conventional wisdom, she looked like she just wanted to shake some sense into America when she talked.

    The country wanted a Trajan

  8. Anonymous, I think the idea of demonizing Trump is very problematic. He displayed many pretty awful traits, a number of which are showing up again in his cabinet choices. As for Clinton she was deeply admired before she ran for president. Nor are your descriptions of her behavior neutral. How we see someone is a product of lots of different factors.

  9. annejjacobson, I would say that at the very least, character is something you have and which is generally considered to be immutable once acquired, whereas culture is something you (collectively) do, that changes over time, and that is subject to being influenced (otherwise all activism is per definition pointless). Personally, I don’t believe in the existence of character, much less national character, so if you want to understand this to mean culture, despite its very different connotations, I’m fine with that.
    But my main objection is that by making statements as I quoted above, or that “demonizers may be able to believe what they wish” or are “incapable of imagining others to have non-self regarding motives” you are yourself demonising others rather than trying to understand what makes them act the way they do. And it is demonising, as you are trying to attribute their actions to immutable “character” defects, rather than to the circumstances they find themselves in and the options they believe to be available to them. In this context, your insistence that it is character, not culture we are talking about is quite significant, as the term also incorporates a connotation of personal blame.

  10. Delft, I don’t think we agree enough on basic terms to have a fruitful discussion. I don’t think character is immutable, for example. I also think people working in experimental philosophy would agree. At least the evidence for the persistence of virtues is slim.

  11. Just to clarify: virtues and vices can be mentioned in description of character. Thus, someone might be brave and generous.

  12. Hello,

    Delft and annejjacobson – as annejjacobson says, your differences in terminology make discussion very difficult; and I think there is a lot of agreement going on here ‘under the table’. I’d therefore like to have a bash at using my habitual (scholastic-y) method of making distinctions to try to disambiguate and show the agreement up.

    Delft: you say “the conclusion that “demonizers have an impoverished range of motives, and, relatedly, they are weak in empathy” is not only wrong, but dangerous. You are saying that demonising is that thing that “those people”, you know, the ones with limited imagination who are weak in empathy, do. This is, in fact, demonising.”

    I distinguish: demonising people and people actually being awful. Sometimes people’s motives and actions actually are thoughtless or imprudent or selfish (and so on). I define ‘demonising’ as covering only cases in which the demoniser imputes to the other motives or actions worse than their actual ones, and as not covering cases in which the person’s motives were precisely what I had taken them to be in characterising them.

    I distinguish: weakness in empathy relative to ‘me, us’ and weakness in empathy relative to an ideal. Demonisers are not structurally weak in the first sense, but are in the second. This can be demonstrated by the reflection that a person with an extraordinary degree of empathy or charity or understanding of the motives of others, whether of an intuitive or intellectual kind, would not be capable of demonising those others. It seems to me obvious that some people are better at understanding others and attempt to do so more habitually (I can think of three people off the top of my head: a friend, a philosopher, and a priest, who are extraordinary at this). I think this kind of thing is what annejjacobson intends by ’empathy’ – do correct me if I’m wrong. Delft, you say “The opposite of demonising is trying to understand the “other”; so this distinction operates in some way in your own scheme.

    I likewise distinguish: impoverishment of motives relative to ‘me, us’ and relative to some ideal. It is true that I meet people who seem to assume the worst of everyone because their own motives are so uniformly self-interested (to pick a slightly facetious example, Nietzsche seems to be like that). For these people to be more prone to demonising need not mean that I and people I regard as like me are without the stain of sin, or that there are people who achieve a lack of self-interestedness far beyond what I have achieved myself.

    It can therefore be truthfully said that demonisers *qua demonisers* lack empathy/charity and lack range of motives – i.e. that it is built into being a demoniser that you, to the extent that you demonise, lack understanding of the other and lack an ability to believe in the excellence of their motives; or in other words, it can be true of both those who demonise a lot and those who demonise a little that insofar as they are a demoniser they lack relevant charitable insight into the motives of the demonised person.

    You also say: “At the moment e.g. I along with many other people am finding it very, very hard not to demonise Trump supporters. And this is not because I cannot imagine reasons why they might be acting in this way, but because I fear the consequences of their actions and *want* to blame them, tell them they’re horrible people etc.”

    I define: ‘character’ as a person’s complex of reasonably settled habitual dispositions. These need not be traits which evince themselves in all circumstances: for example, I know someone who is kind. If they are sufficiently tired, or stressed, or filled with social anxiety, they may fail to be kind even in situations in which someone who I think of as less kind would be kind; but nonetheless they have a settled disposition toward kindness, as it were a lower ‘threshold’ for seeing kindness as required or appropriate, and a higher ‘threshold’ for what kind of inconvenience or other commitment would be significant enough to get in the way of their being kind. I defend this definition by noting that Delft, having defined character as immutable you say that it doesn’t exist, making your use of the word defunct; I therefore offer my own definition such that the word may have some use. If you wish to retain the ability to argue about the thing, I propose the term ‘nature’ to denote what you call ‘character’.

    I distinguish: a lack of charitable insight into another person’s motives caused by a settled flaw of character, and lack of charitable insight caused by circumstance. For example, I am more prone to demonising when I am tired, or upset for some other reason, or when someone I care about has been hurt by some action (even if unintentionally): because in such circumstances I am indeed less capable of being charitable toward my opponent, and I do indeed have a smaller and worse range of motives myself. Again, then, I assert that a demoniser has qua demoniser a lack of charitable insight into the motives of the person demonised; and I distinguish that to note this lack may not constitute a claim about that person’s character or nature, or create an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ with regard to demonising.

    A final side-note: I prefer talking about ‘charitable insight into the others motives’ to ’empathy’, as the connotations of empathy tend to have people understand it as a kind of intuitive, non-intellectual feeling-with and grasp on what other people are going through. I think that the capacity which is morally useful in this context could come from empathy (in the sense of intuitive grasp on the emotions of others) but could also come from other habits of thought; and there are people (myself included) who are deficient in empathy (in the intuitive-feeling sense of the term) and who work quite hard to compensate for the lack.

    That turned out to be quite long. Still, I hope it’s useful.

    In friendship,

  13. @Lambton
    Thank you for the attempt. I think there are two quite separate issues here.
    My problem with the word character is that it has been used for centuries to justify inequality (the “shiftless poor” etc.) and retributive “justice”. Redefining it doesn’t change the connotations it carries – if you are told “it’s your character that is at fault” it does not feel the same as if you are told “it’s your culture that is at fault”. (I use culture as a contrast because annejjacobson objected to my distinguishing these two concepts.) The term nature also has connotations, in particular that of being innate and in some way inevitable. As with the idea of character being immutable – I am not defining this, or claiming it to be true: it is simply the way the words have been used for centuries. You cannot simply brush away these connotations, and expect them to not affect the meaning of what you are saying.
    ré demonisation: I really recommend reading the book I linked to above.
    The suggestion is made here that the people who said horrible things about Hillary Clinton (the demonisers) – and I quote – are “incapable of imagining others to have non-self regarding motives”, “weak in empathy”, “people of considerable ill-will”, and “able to believe what they wish”. This is itself demonising.
    I’m not sure if I interpret you right that this isn’t demonising because these people actually are awful?
    How do you know that? If there are 30 – 60 million people who say these things, isn’t it a little simplistic to suggest they are simply all awful people? It’s not that I don’t understand the instinct to blame them as mentioned above. But with this attitude, what hope is there of engaging them in a dialogue?
    “Hello, I think you’re all truly horrible people, and here’s why you should vote differently next time…”
    “Hello, I think you are a person of considerable ill-will who is weak in empathy, and you should try to help these people…”
    Human motivation is complex, many-layered, and we have very little insight into even our own. Claiming to be able to determine what other people’s motivations are is … hubris? … at any rate there’s no rational basis for it. So maybe instead we can try to see it in terms of how people perceive their situation, and what options they believe to be available to them. On these terms it is possible to engage, and at least *try* to find a common solution. No, it’s not a gimme. But if we cannot get away from the blame-game, I see no hope for humanity.

  14. Let me clarify. By ‘demonize’ I meant somethin akin to what the Oxford dictionary has online:https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/demonize

    Portray as wicked and threatening:
    ‘he was demonized by the right-wing press’
    More example sentences”

    Note also a distinction I allude to near the end between those who initiate and the who merely go along.

    Delft, I think you’ve raised some good points, but I think the book is a red herring. I read the sample amazon sends one. It is a considerable mixture of cases, one of which is quite clearly a case of delusional disorder. At least one other seems pretty reasonable. But the authors are not talking about the sort thing I’ve been discussing. Further, I don’t think the characterizations I gave of demonizers amounted to demonizing them.

    Thanks, LW i was intrigued by your comments. Especially about empathy. Let me think… i am actually very jetlagged.

  15. Hello again,

    First of all, then, Delft: If you like, I’ll switch to the Greek ἦθος, ‘ethos’ to talk about the thing I mean. Whatever it is that Aristotle is talking about when he talks about ἦθος (which modern translators usually render as character) is what I want to talk about. The important characteristics of it are that it includes traits like kindness, cowardliness, thoughtfulness, patience, hot-headedness, and so on; that it is changeable, but changes quite slowly, especially once it has been formed (in childhood); and that it is habitual, in the sense of being a tendency towards a certain kind of action which is relatively stable over time (a kind person doesn’t just do one kind act), though this tendency can be inhibited by other factors (for example, kindess might be inhibited by being very tired or upset). So long as it’s roughly clear what I want to talk about, I don’t much mind the term used. I use ‘character’ because that’s the word current for it in the tradition of virtue ethics that I situate myself in, and so it functions as a useful shorthand for other people who are also conversant in/with that tradition. If you’d prefer I used a different word talking with you, that’s fine and I can see why. ‘Ethos’, then; or maybe just ‘personality’.

    For point 2: I didn’t say that they really are awful! I was trying to make a definitional point. If someone is acting in a selfish manner, I do not demonise them (per se) by calling them selfish.

    To take an uncontroversial starting-point: my friend is behaving selfishly, and I say to them, ‘you’re being selfish’ in the hope that they will ‘notice’ that they are indeed acting selfishly and change their behaviour. In this case, I’m not demonising them: indeed, my saying that may be motivated by concern for that friend. Similarly, ‘can you see why that was a thoughtless thing to do’, or ‘Joe, you’re acting like a dick’. These kind of things aren’t demonising.

    (You pick up “weak in empathy” as itself demonising. I’m weak in empathy. I’m not demonising myself by saying so. I just am. Indeed, to the extent that any aspect of me is part of my unchanging, built-in character-or-nature, that’s one; and I still don’t think I’m demonising myself by saying so.)

    Second (perhaps more controversial; also relevant to ajj), I want to make the claim that demonising must involve either a) taking the person demonised to be worse than they in fact are or b) trying to make it out that the person demonised is worse than they in fact are.

    Let’s have a concrete example. Suppose that I think that someone is a selfish person, and I think that their voting decisions reflect that selfishness. My friend says to me, “come now, Lambton: you’re demonising them – you don’t know if they’re really that selfish”. I then take my friend to this person, and ask them how they justified voting as they did given various unjust things which that government had done and has promised to do, and they replied: “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me. I only vote based on what affects me.” It seems to me that in this case it has turned out that I was not demonising that person: *because they actually were like that*. (n.b. this is a real example; this person’s other positions include ‘I don’t care about climate change because I’ll be dead by the time it matters’, and ‘I want to leave the EU to get rid of immigrants’ – to clarify, they don’t think that immigrants are bad for the economy, or put an unnecessary strain on public services: they just don’t like the idea of foreign people living near them.)

    annejjacobson: you define demonising as “portray as wicked and threatening”. Again in defense of my definition, take an example: it seems to me quite obvious that if a newspaper portrays someone as a dangerous maniac, they are laughed down as alarmists, and then that person actually does go ahead to launch a coup, massacre the opposition, and institute himself as supreme leader, the newspaper was not, in fact, demonising him. They might have been demonising him accidentally: if they had had no good reason to think he was dangerous, did him down anyway, and then it turned out, Gettier-style, that it was all true. But the case I’m talking about is the one in which the newspaper had good evidence, made a prudent judgement on the basis of that evidence, and were correct: in this case it turns out that either a) they were not demonising; or b) their demonisation was justified. As I would prefer to have demonisation be morally weighted, denoting something which we should try not to do, I prefer a). I can see why you might argue for b) but I want to stress that this would make ‘to demonise’ morally neutral in itself, which I think is problematic for a number of reasons, not least that it seems to colllapse it into other kinds of judgement and description. There’s more to demonising, I think, just saying that someone is wicked or threatening per se.

    In my earlier comment, I didn’t want to make any statement about whether Trump voters were in fact awful; I just wanted to make the definitional point.

    Sure, there are some Trump voters who I think are pretty irremediably morally awful, but not very many of them, and none just on the grounds that they voted for Trump.

    I said earlier that I think there is considerable agreement here. I think, and unless I’ve somehow horribly misread your (Delft’s) statements, that a) we oughtn’t to demonise people; and b) we can protect ourselves from demonising by seeking to understand the other person, to enter into their motives and their inner life, and to be charitable in our assumptions about what might be there to the extent that their motives and perspective are hidden from us.

    I do also believe that after I’ve achieved a certain level of insight into a person, I will sometimes be able to quite reasonably conclude that they are reprehensible. Unless you think that nobody is better or worse than anyone else, or that nobody has any genuine insight into anybody’s motives at all, then I don’t really see how you could argue that that is never veridical.

    You say: “Human motivation is complex, many-layered, and we have very little insight into even our own. Claiming to be able to determine what other people’s motivations are is … hubris? … at any rate there’s no rational basis for it. So maybe instead we can try to see it in terms of how people perceive their situation, and what options they believe to be available to them.”

    I’m not sure how to read this in the context of your earlier remarks, as there sees to be a tension here between ‘we can’t know anybody’s motives’ and ‘we ought to seek to understand other people in order to overcome our tendency to paint them as the dangerous bad ‘other”. I have a lot of sympathy with the second one; though I accept that insight into motives is a difficult task and a complete knowledge is impossible, there are plenty of motives and bits of the inner life that are really quite simple to get a handle on. For example, sometimes I am accidentally mean to people I like because I haven’t thought about how they will feel about something I’ve done, because I have an ongoing character flaw of not being very good at remembering that other people have a perspective on my actions. That isn’t a complicated thing and I don’t lack insight into its operation: it’s pretty simple, I’ve done it dozens of times, and I’ve had ample opportunity to observe it. Another example that springs quickly to mind is that I am often mean to people when the day has contained a very large number of petty annoyances, such that my ‘reserve’ of being able to brush off inconveniences has been worn down. Similarly, I think that I can have a pretty good handle on the operation of many of the most salient personality traits of my close friends, and the way that circumstance is liable to affect them.

    In the cases more relevant to politics and blame and demonisation, I think I have met people who (for example) are greedy and love money and work in industries of dubious ethics and do not care very much about the fortunes of others; and the things that they have done and said have left me little room for doubt about it. And I don’t think I am demonising them just by saying that. I know from experience that some of them, when presented with that description, agree.


  16. Dear Annejjacobson,
    you are right that the book, written by two therapists, has many clinical examples that are quite extreme. It still absolutely applies: I heard a work colleague, whom I had previously considered to be quite ‘normal’, say “Hillary murders people”. I think that would fit all but the most extreme examples.
    And these extremes are fairly natural extensions of our everyday habits of blaming.
    The things you say in the OP are different in degree but to my way of thinking not really different in kind because you are attributing actions to people’s ill-will, to their defects of character. You are seeing and portraying these people as being substantially different from yourself, as other, rather than trying to understand them. This, in itself, precludes any kind of dialogue. As I wrote, a part of me ‘wants’ to do this myself – I am trying to get across the message (apparently quite ineptly) that it is dangerous, and this kind of thing has in my opinion contributed strongly to the predicament we now find ourselves in. (The book also offers an alternative, how to think in a different way.)
    To be entirely practical for a moment, some yes/no questions for a train of thought:
    Do you believe people will want to enter a dialogue with someone who starts by telling them they are ill-willed, lack empathy, believe what they wish, have defective characters etc?
    More than with people who are trying to understand their concerns?
    Would you?
    Do you think these people are not aware of how the ‘liberal’ media portrays them?
    Do you really believe this has played no part in hardening the divide to the point where it is now?
    Should we just go on like this until Wilders/LePen/Farage/Petry etc. have grabbed power in Europe?
    Frankly, I am terrified by this prospect, and I think there is a chance of this happening, though I hope we may still be at a point where we are able to prevent the worst. This is why I am deeply distressed to see ideas such as those in the OP so widespread today. And why I am going on about it a fair bit, sorry for that.

    Thank you for your patience.


  17. Hello Lambton,

    thank you for your in depth reply. Also for dropping the term ‘character’ which for me is tainted.

    I understand your position to be fairly traditional virtue ethics (I may have missed the finer points), and I am afraid I disagree on several counts.
    Epistemically, I don’t think value judgements have a truth value. For facts I have a truth criterion (scientific method), for judgements I don’t. That doesn’t mean there is no way at all to arbitrate between them in any way, but it’s not a question of truth.
    “He is selfish”, or even “he acted selfishly in this particular instance” is a value judgement. There is no fact of the matter. There is no Ur-meter of “selfishness” we can compare an act to: we look at it and judge it to be selfish or not. You can set up a list of criteria for what selfish means to you, but maybe everyone will have a different list. There is nothing to arbitrate which list is the “correct” one. We might even all agree on a particular act, but that wouldn’t make it a fact, just a common judgement. This is why I don’t accept “it’s not demonising if it’s true” for such judgements, unlike for claims of fact.
    I do think we have no real insight into human motivation. I am not even sure there is a fact of the matter to what makes us do something: there are billions of brain circuits whizzing along, the sum total makes us go left or right – what caused us to go left (or right)?
    Weltanschaulich, I embrace non-violence (Rosenberg) and the tragic view that conflict and suffering is not caused by evil or ill-will, but is a natural part of life (described in Psychology of Demonisation). I’m not sure which philosophers come closest to that, I find the Stoics a bit cold and remote, and the Buddhists a bit otherworldly. In both cases the goal seems to be to become dispassionate which I find wasteful – there’s this fabulous world out there, and you want to just detach from it? Comte-Sponville, perhaps, who seems to be more in favour of a warmer flavour of acceptance, though I confess I never made it to the end of his Labyrinth.
    You address an apparent contradiction: that I’m not sure we can understand or even that there is a “real” motive, but we should seek to understand others. For me this is partly the difference between “why did you do this” and “what are factors that have contributed to your doing this”. Partly the difference between motive (internal) and situation (external), though this will really be how you perceive your situation and options. And partly it is indeed a way of changing our attitude from judgemental to compassionate, compassion being a way to build connections where judgement pushes people apart.

    Someone may act the way they do because of the person they are (right now), but the person was formed by their previous experiences. For example selfishness is often caused by the person being afraid of not getting “enough”, being in a mind-state of want not plenty. There is data to suggest that e.g. people’s generosity to refugees varies directly with their perception of their own situation (n.b. the “perception” is operative here). As another example a lack of feeling for others is often caused by childhood neglect / abuse, indeed, not caring is a survival strategy for children in certain situations. When you look at some of those people who don’t care for the fortunes of others – do you get the feeling they were loved and cherished as children? Or have they grown a carapace to protect themselves? If the latter, are they still “selfish”? (the person, not their actions)

    I’m afraid I also don’t believe in altruism. You name as a selfish principle: “I only vote based on what affects me.” So do I. If someone is treated unfairly, or is hungry, or cold, or in need that affects me, so I want to avoid it. I want everyone to be OK because I want to live in a world where everyone is OK, is taken care of etc. That makes me feel better now, I don’t need to worry about anyone, and also safer (because if I am ever in need I can expect to be taken care of). I think we all agree (+/-) on how *we* want to be treated, the question is only to which circle of people we accord the same “privilege”. The Dalai Lama calls this “the circle of love”, and discusses how to “widen” it.
    I’m rambling so I’ll make one final point: there’s a tremendous difference between judging actions and judging people / characters.


  18. Delft,

    I think we may have hit an end-point – this comment thread is not the place to try to discuss whether value judgements have a truth value, and in any case I don’t have time this week to devote to internet arguments of that much substance and detail. Our core disagreement seems to be (again, correct me if I’m wrong) that I believe that a) there is good and evil; b) there is virtue and vice; c) I don’t demonise a person by speaking of them accurately; and therefore d) I don’t demonise a person by naming their vices. You reject a), thus you reject b), thus you reject d).

    I think there are good arguments for a). I can’t afford the time commitment of getting into the matter. Sorry about that.

    I will ask for clarification on one further thing, even though I don’t want to carry on the argument as such.

    I have no grip at all on why you deny that we have any insight into anyone’s motives.

    Here are some cases which I would take to be paradigmatic of “why did you do this”:
    a) a man walks to the station. This is because he is getting a train to go to work.
    b) a man goes shopping, and amongst other things buys some ice cream. This is because he likes ice cream.
    c) my friend is getting upset unusually easily. This is because she is a bit ill, and her job has been unusually stressful, and she’s just been on a long shift, and she is tired.
    d) I decide to go for a walk. I’ve picked this day rather than another because this is the sunniest day there’s been for a while, and will be for a while more in what is proving to be a rainy season; and I prefer walking on sunny days to rainy ones.
    e) The king’s ambitious courtier posions his wine, killing him. He did this because he believes that he will be named regent for the infant prince (here is a paradigm case of a ‘motive’ if ever there was one: a murder comes with means, opportunity, and – motive).
    f) Why did Alex leave the party? He said he was going to buy more beer, but he has an ulterior motive: Jeanne has just gone, and he wanted to catch her by herself to as her out.

    The claim that we have no insight at all into anyone’s motives just strikes me as insane, absurd: if I really had no insight into anyone’s motives I would be just as inclined to think that the man was going to the station because he wanted to buy a goldfish as to think that he was going to catch a train; indeed, I wouldn’t even be able to formulate ideas like ‘going to the station’ at all, because by characterising his walking along as being intended to get him to the station, I’ve brought in a motive: his intention or desire to be at the station.

    So whatever do you mean?


  19. Hello Lambton,

    you’re right, this is not the right place for such a discussion.
    If you leave your email address in my contact form (not public, just sends me a mail), I’ll outline why the “why” is not as easy as it seems, and why it is needed for b) even granted a) – which you’re correct, I don’t.



  20. I apologize for being mostly absent from the discussion. I wrote the post right before I left England and then ended up very jetlagged after returning home.

    I do find myself in accord with much of the LW’s points. I particularly like the idea that there is an error in thinking we never understand why people act. Much of the time motive or goal is included in the description of the action.

    LW’S concluding question caused a wave of nostalgia to sweep over me. I had a tutor who would say fairly often to various people things like this: That is, on the face of it, the stupiest thing I’ve ever heard. So what could you mean by it?

  21. Sorry for the delayed response. Life’s was just rather complicated this week. I’ve sent a reply to Lambton, which is rather too long to post as a comment.
    In short, I think we can generally make a guess why someone is doing something, but this is not the same as knowing why someone is acting, and is certainly not enough to make any sort of moral judgement. Even when we guess the proximate goal correctly (e.g. our man is going to work in a, rather than to the station shop) this does not supply his motive: does he go to work because he enjoys the work, the exchanges with colleagues, the sense of accomplishment it gives him? Or for fear of losing it, becoming destitute? Or to escape his unhappy home life, or his private problems? Is it maybe a combination of all of these, or none?
    Modern behavioural science suggests that many factors influence our behaviour which we would never dream of naming as our reasons (advertising/ salesmanship, broken window effect, bystander effect, the time question, the card bad-stack experiment, adverse childhood experience index). Also psychology indicates that we don’t necessarily realise when e.g. traumatic memories influence our behaviour, typically avoidance of triggers. So we don’t necessarily have insight even into our own motives.
    That doesn’t mean we don’t have a story to tell, i.e. a rationalisation of our/others’ behaviour, but this doesn’t necessarily relate to what actually makes us/others act as we/they do.
    In Rosenberg’s NVC one of the major points is to realise the difference between the actual facts (“observation”) and what we imagine is going on inside someone’s head (“Interpretation”). Freeing ourselves from the illusion that we know/understand why someone acts as they do is vital to enabling us to approach them without the judgemental stance which precludes any kind of dialogue (see my point above), and to make us open to real communication with them.

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