Many of Trump’s defenders have tried to demonize key witnesses in the impeachment hearings. Demonizing is a rhetorical strategy that aims at casting the target as evil, corrupt, dangerous or threatening. Demonizing can also be used to fuel or intensify other fallacies. My aim is to provide a discussion of demonizing to help people recognize and, I hope, exorcise it.
By its very nature demonization is a deceitful strategy—one does not need to demonize those who are evil. The level of deception used to demonize does vary considerably. The least dishonest approach is selective demonizing. This method involves making true negative claims but is a dishonest strategy because it involves cherry picking negative aspects of a person or group and emphasizing them without context. For example, if a person is killed by the police those trying to defend the officer might assert that the person “was no angel” and focus intently on, for example, the fact they were once arrested for possession of marijuana. As another example, those trying to demonize a corporation might focus on one bad thing the company did. Selective demonizing grants its user the advantage of being able to claim that what they are saying is true—although they are engaged in deception by omission.
The problem with selective demonizing is that it ignores the full story of the person or group in favor of focusing on the negative, which is unfair. To use an analogy, it would be like a teacher selecting only your worst grades to determine your grade in a course. It is certainly fair to consider the negative aspects of a person or group, but they must be taken in context. The defense against selective demonizing is to consider the broader context.
Hyperbolic demonization involves a greater level of deceit than selective demonization, but still has some connection to truth. This is because it involves hyperbole, which is an extravagant overstatement or exaggeration. Hyperbole differs from an outright lie in that it does have a foundation in truth—but the house built on that foundation is a lie. This allows those using it to claim that what they are saying has some basis in fact. The problem is, obviously, that what they are saying is not true. For example, a person trying to demonize migrants might take the true claim that some migrants commit crimes and explode that into a hyperbolic demonization about how masses of migrants are coming to the United States to rape and murder. The defense against hyperbolic demonization is to learn the facts and resist being manipulated by the exaggeration.
Fictional demonization involves simply making up negative claims about a person or group. This is sometimes done more subtly with innuendo (a rhetorical device in which one suggests or implies something deprecatory) or by using a weasler (a rhetorical device in which one protects a claim by weakening it). For example, defenders of Trump tried to suggest that Lieutenant Colonel might be disloyal to the United States—perhaps even a spy or traitor. In other cases, the demonizing involves directly making false extreme negative claims about a person or group. For example, someone might demonize minorities by claiming that they are engaged in a white genocide. The defense against fictional demonization is being critical of claims and only accepting them when they are backed by credible evidence—especially in cases involving strong emotional appeals.
While demonization is psychological effective, it has no logical weight. Also, by definition, it involves deception: selected truths, exaggeration or outright lies. As such, it is wise to be wary of demonization. There is also the moral concern that demonization is typically employed in the service of evil ends. After all, the good do not need to demonize the evil. In the upcoming essays I will look at some fallacies associated with demonization.