Us against them – it’s not about polarization; it’s about demonization

When I was a teenager, I become fascinated by the concept of “demonization” – and the answer is yes, I was a weird kid at school. You probably already know or heard of the idea, but to explain further, it goes more or less like this: someone creates a narrative of good and evil, in which the other is not just the villain, but a monster so out of redemption that deserve just to be eliminated from the face of the earth. We saw a good example of this tactic in the recent Taika Waititi’s satire “Jojo Rabbit”. But what is a joke in the film is actually a disturbingly common practice among regular people in day to day life.

The idea doesn’t seem so extraordinary, at least in theory. But in practice it has devastating effects once, from the perspective of those who demonizes, the other is so wrong that can’t be consider a human being. So you can have an idea, we can arguably put most – if not all – atrocities committed in World War II due to the demonization of the other side.

Before World War II, things were different. Of course there were conflicts, but soldiers saw each other as just soldiers and nothing else. I’m sure you’ve hear about the story of how enemies called a temporary truce during World War I and exchange presents during Christmas. That was nothing out of ordinary at the time: Being a soldier was just a job. A hard one in which sometimes you had to kill others, but still a job. They still saw their enemies as people like them, with their own interests and desires. But, when you see your opponent as the devil or as a monster, you stop seeing him as a person – and that has terrible consequences.

Not that demonization is a recent invention. Western culture did it to justify the slavery of people of African descent. Portuguese did it with indigenous people in Brazil and so North-Americans with their indigenous people. Military Dictatorship in Brazil did that with communism – following  in the footsteps of United States. The Brazilian left does it with neoliberalism. Western culture does this today with Islam. Religions did and does that all the time – especially monotheistic religions, that’s where the term is from. All these are examples that, even when happened centuries ago, we felt the consequences until to this day.

The thing is, we don’t do this only in hard times – not anymore. We do this everyday with people who live on the streets, with people who’s in jail, with people with cognitive impairments. Now, in the age of social media we do this with each other. The other is us.

I’m sure you know and was called certain things in this age of “not-debate” on the internet. One example is the term SJW (Social Justice Warrior), used to describe – pejoratively – someone who’s really intense in defend social justice. It's used mainly by conservatives that oppose to those ideals, but the term is out there and helps dehumanize the person which was called that in the first place. “Libtard” is another term, much more offensive, that has the same idea. But that’s not just a conservative thing. Liberals also look at them with pejorative eyes and called them terms. I’m not talking about “swearing”; I’m talking about specific terms that is used as a way of dehumanize the person.

But that’s not a big deal, right? It can be, It’s just words! And we call each other’s names all the time, even between friends. So are you not be offended if I called to something bad, like an idiot, or liar? Or if I started to call by a nickname that is related to your weight, sexual orientation or social status? Won’t be bothered if I say a bad word near a kid? Won’t get emotional if someone you love says he/she loves you back? Indeed, words by itself are not the problem; the problem is that we gave meaning to words. And the meaning can have an impact on how you perceive a person.

Everyone talks about how “polarized” we are today. That’s the word of the moment. And it’s not by accident; after so many social changes, looks like we are far from being able to accept differences. But the term polarization doesn’t do much to describe what we are really living today. It’s more than that. We live in a time of general demonization.

In the past, demonization was a phenomenon that was reserved, for the most part, to big conflicts or political manipulations – and just in a small part in day-to-day life. But today this thing that generals and politicians do to make ordinary people agree with having people killed is the tactic that us, as individuals, use every day when we engage with another person, even friends and family.

When we call someone a “libtard”, we are giving a very clear message: he/she is a monster that don't deserved to be called by his/her own name and, because of that, don't deserve any kind of thought or consideration. Only contempt. It’s not possible to debate with this “thing”, so there’s only one option: to eliminate the threat. This way of thinking is really dangerous because it’s not a way of thinking at all; it’s a way of acting without the need to think about it. Because that’s what we think the contemporary world with information in real time and everybody giving opinions wants from us: fast replies and immediate judgment. And the same goes to any other term that is used today to describe a group of people. As I said, it’s not exclusively a conservative thing – although it is more common coming from groups that needs that its members don’t think to much and just act.

The rising of demonization in daily life brings, as consequence, the end of debate and dialog – which is certainly empowered by social media. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc, everyone is an opinion leader for its audience, it doesn’t matter if you are a famous person or only have 5 followers. Social media can be extremely horizontal when you say something extreme. If you say the “right” thing, specially some extremism, your message will be shared not only by those who agrees with you, but also – and in many cases manly – by the people who disagree with you and are outraged by what you said. Is doesn’t’ matter if you have 5 followers, you just need that someone that shared your content – doesn’t matter if it’s who agrees or disagrees with you – had enough followers to make the content viral. And you became famous. That’s, by the way, a really interesting thing about our times: the way a opponent can make you more popular than any of your followers just by sharing your content to refute it. But that’s an issue for another time. Let’s continue.

Social media and the fast pace of today’s world makes every judgment an automatic thing, almost like a computer. Defends social justice? Your are a libtard. Defends abortion? Murderer! Defends the right to use a gun? Extremist! I don’t care why you defend this idea or if you have valid points. There’s no time to think about that. There’s only time for judgment. Even our smartphones are capable of more sophisticated engagement than that.

When you reduce a people to a deprecated term, he/she stops being a person and become a caricature. A fiction. In fiction, things make more sense if understood in terms of opposite sides – good and evil. And you have to be the good one, right? So the other has to be the evil one. And evil has to be destroyed, like in any good movie, book or comic book showed us. That’s how all stories end: we eliminate the evil and the good guys and girls will live happily ever after.

The way we use social media turned our daily life into a big fiction narrative where each one of us thinks is the main protagonist. And with algorithms designed to make sure that we stay trapped in our own reality, it’s not surprising that we don’t care about if a thing is true or not anymore; It’s a story, and if I’m the good guy, every information that contradicts that is simply wrong. That’s not a new idea; Philosophers like Lyotard and Baudrillard worte about it decades ago. But what most Philosophers didn’t thought was what happens when the narrative is not a shared one anymore and each one of us live our own stories that doesn’t connect to any other.

One of the consequences of having this as a general rule is easy to spot: there’s no room for debate, for conversation and, as consequence, there’s no room for consensus. Without consensus, who has more power in a society – physical, financial or psychological power depending on the context – tends to being who makes the decisions for everyone in a way that maybe we don’t even know that decisions were made. Another consequence is that we end up living in a imaginary bubble where everyone that comes closer is a potential threat. A bubble that, the more isolated, more fragile it is. To protect our bubble, in the case of a real threat, we tend to ridicule and diminished it instead of given the due attention and importance. This is not a prediction. We are living it right now.

It’s important to say that this has nothing to do with being able to criticize someone. It’s possible to criticize, disagree and even to consider some idea dangerous without reduce the other to a monstrous stereotype. I’m not talking about creating a world where nothing can be criticizes, quite the opposite; my worry is that the virtual gap between people could be greater and greater among conflicting views leading us to a world where nothing can be criticized.

Maybe this tendency to demonization is “natural” in an evolutionary way. It was probably always there. But the social configuration of today multiplies this in ways that’s never being done before in any time of our History. And we can’t go back. We have to rethink how we behave with each other, especially with those who think differently than us or, sooner or later, everyone will be your monstrous enemy.

But that has nothing to do with me, you think. I’m rational. It’s those religious fanatics, those politicians, the lord of the wars. I’m just a regular person. Well, they say that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Maybe monstrosity too.
Rafael Algures is a Bachelor of Philosophy specialized in Neurosciences of Language. He is also a copywriter, content and science writer, and a comic book creator. His latest work, “Gutter of Horror: Transition”, a short horror comic about Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence are available at Amazon – digital and paperback.