All Things Beautiful has an extremely interesting meditation on the power of demonization. I quote from her conclusion:
Here is where the real power of demonization lies. Human beings are notoriously bad at figuring out other people’s motives, and if there’s anything that experience teaches us, it’s that when people try to ascribe motives to people they don’t like, they almost always ascribe to them motives that (a) aren’t at all what the real motives were and (b) are much worse than the real motives were. You see it in estranged husbands and wives and parents and children: once you get angry with somebody you get very bad at figuring out what their motives are, and once your anger settles into permanent hatred you can be all but guaranteed to get it wrong. If, therefore, I were to attempt to spell out what I thought were the motives of the person I wished to demonize, I would be likely to come up with something as patently absurd as Krugman’s utterly-bereft-of-sanity wild-assed speculation about the near-Satanic motives of The Evil That Is Dubya:
Torture, I believe, appeals to the president and the vice president precisely because it’s a violation of both law and tradition. By making an illegal and immoral practice a key element of U.S. policy, they’re asserting their right to do whatever they claim is necessary.
Now anybody who is not himself blinded by hatred of Dubya will, upon reading that, simply say, “My God, Krugman has lost it,” and go on about his business. The danger of specificity, you see, is that the more specific you make a charge, the easier it is for your opponents — or, in Krugman’s case, your readers’ simple common sense — to show the absurdity of your charge, thus destroying its effectiveness: instead of hating your target, people merely laugh at you. So you see, it is far more effective simply to slap on some label that drags in the connotation of evil motives, without ever providing an explicit accusation of evil motives against which your target could defend himself. Specifics can be refuted. Vague connotations cannot.
You could, for example, call Republicans “fascists.” Not one Democrat in a hundred could tell you what makes a particular system of government “fascist,” nor would those hundred Democrats really care. In modern American language, “You fascist,” means, “You’re a Republican, plus I hate you.” Similarly, to call someone a “fundamentalist Christian” now means nothing much more than, “You think that there’s a single moral code that applies to everybody and in particular to me, even if I happen to dislike its requirements, plus you are uneducated and probably toothless and at most a short walk from the trailer park…plus I hate you.” “Liberal” is rapidly coming to mean something similar on the other side, and of course I’ve already pointed out what has happened to the term “feminist.”
That’s the beauty (from the demagoguic standpoint) of labels. And that’s the power of demonization. —
Okay, but that still leaves us with our original question: ” Why is this a problem?
It’s a problem because, by demonizing, one drives a wedge between people that can only lead to profound hostility and eventually violence. Now in some cases, that’s not exactly the wrong thing, as Tigerhawk pointed out in a recent post. There are people whose motives are genuinely evil — like Jihadis who wish to take over the world and turn it into a dystopia resembling Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They are enemies and deserve not so much demonization as denunciation. But when you live in a democracy and you go after the other party because they do things you really don’t like, then you are on the road to conspiracy, factionalism and terrorism. It will be the death of the very democracy whose values prompt you to denounce in the most ludicrous terms, the behavior of the opposing party.