The politics of demonization
How did we get here?
WARNING: GRAPHIC VIOLENT IMAGES AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE.
By TATIANA PROPHET
For the last year, our national psyche has been bombarded daily with one disturbing article, story or image after another about the opposing political party and candidates, often tailored to our social media preferences. We can all look back on 2016 as marking the incorporation of outrage into our day (and that's without the "why me" mourning each time one of our favorite musicians succumbs to mortality).
Last week, the ante was officially upped: Comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo by Tyler Shields of her appearing to be brandishing the bloody, severed head of Donald Trump. Bewildering is what came to mind immediately. Normally when I see something that outrages one side of the political spectrum, I tend to look deeper into the situation and ask myself, why was the source of the outrage committed in the first place? What were they thinking?
When I do that, the view often gets more complicated and the black, white and red we see muddies itself to the ballet-friendly colors of gray and pink. Often, there is a justification for whatever the outrageous deed is. I can remember before the election when someone in the Northwest posted Hillary Clinton in effigy hanging over a highway with the sign "Uranium One" hanging around the neck. I posted it on Facebook with the caption "Deplorable." Then I looked up Uranium One. Apparently, that's the formerly Canadian, now Russian-owned multinational that succeeded in buying 20 percent of U.S. uranium in a deal approved by the State Department when Hillary Clinton was its chief officer. It sounded bad. In fact, The New York Times had written a pretty lengthy story on the sale, in 2015. The evidence showed correlation but not causation between contributions to the Clinton Foundation and the approval of the sale. It also demonstrated extensive research into the idea that the United States actually needs all of its uranium, and that the Obama Administration was trying to be very friendly to Russia when it first began -- allowing the sale in a deal that went largely unnoticed by the media.
Needless to say, I was disturbed by the allegations and quickly moved to refute them. One of the things I found was that there were dozens of other agencies that also had to sign off on the deal, not just the State Department.
But the point remains: every time we've seen a candidate hanging in effigy, or burning in effigy, or beheaded in effigy, there is some sort of unforgivable sin that said candidate has committed to justify the image.
Before the election, social media was awash with images of Donald Trump as Perseus brandishing the severed head of Medusa in the likeness of Hillary Clinton. At the time, a full-throated Clinton supporter, I was disturbed and offended by the image.
But we all remember the chants of "Lock her up," and maybe even the "Clinton body count" allegations that Bill and Hillary have had dozens of enemies literally killed -- hence the justification of the moniker "Killary." The unsolved mysterious murder of Seth Rich notwithstanding, the evidence is largely circumstantial. But every case should be assessed on its own merit.
Still, whether or not you believe the egregious allegations about either Clinton or Trump (an unapologetic racist?) has a direct correlation with how much you are willing to accept, and even share, disturbing images or statements about that person. Anybody remember the T-shirts "Trump that bitch"?
It's a fact that Donald Trump has brought a large portion of the recent over-the-top attacks on himself, due to the incredibly cutthroat nature of the 2016 presidential election.
And before that, he opened himself up to unrepentant derision by supporters of President Barack Obama by insisting for years that Obama was not born in the United States.
As someone who preached nearly every day on Facebook about the dangers of electing Donald Trump president, largely on my support for action on climate change, I am puzzled by the sheer horror being expressed wholesale now that Trump has fulfilled a key campaign promise, to pull out of the Paris Accord. I wonder, where were all these people last year who ignored my posts? But I digress.
My aim here is to look at the plummeting of our national discourse. Once again, I'm mostly alone in asking for fairness to all parties and all leaders, and for the violent and demonizing rhetoric to be tempered in the name of facts, context and fairness.
When I went to research this column, imagine my surprise when I saw that Kathy Griffin actually had a reason behind the photo she took. And I wondered why more people weren't aware of it. When she posted the photo on Twitter, she posted "I caption this 'He had blood coming out of his eyes, coming out of his wherever,' " referring to the infamous quote by Trump regarding how angry Megyn Kelly apparently looked when she asked him about his treatment of women at one of the first Republican debates; and he, taken aback, replied, "Only Rosie O'Donnell."
Who knew? Why isn't Kathy Griffin telling everyone that was her reason? And by the way, why the severed head? Why couldn't they stage something that conveyed the joke better? I could think of so many different ways to do that, and I am not a professional shock photographer or comedian. Still, I can't help but think that all of the air time and ink devoted to Griffin's mishap could be saved or devoted to something else if we all knew she was aiming to make the Donald feel what it's like to be accused of having blood coming out of your eyes or your whatever.
So how did we get here?
In my opinion, we got here because we are justifying the hatred that is increasing of people with opposing points of view. In my experience, the truth about the opposing side is generally, but not always, less extreme than what the partisan sources are portraying. And even when an audio or video tape exists, opinions differ on the motives or the unforgivability of the sin.
We only have to look at Rwanda, where 1 million Tutsis were killed in 1994, for the effect of propaganda that demonizes the enemy, to see the admittedly extreme logical conclusion of partisan news.
I think I am not alone in this country in thinking that making T-shirts that say "Trump that bitch" and "Lock her up" or portraying an enemy as Medusa is probably not the best thing for our country. I'm a big proponent of free speech; yet I think we should all give pause when we are tempted to demonize our enemies, and literally call them "less than human."
We in this nation have been fortunate enough to be spared from rampant violence, especially in privileged communities that do not suffer from poverty and addiction. And despite an overall decrease in the national crime rate, we are coming face to face with sudden acts of violence in public spaces. It seems no one is safe. Beheadings, something we learned in textbooks in the 1980s and 1990s, are now a thing of the present. So while the theatrics of a notoriously bloody band like GWAR and horror flicks like Evil Dead have their place and their fan base, some of us have begun to realize that when this stuff is close to home, it just isn't as funny as it used to be. The only way to be sensitive to our newfound reality is to self censor -- express yourself in an effective way without invoking images that are too real for too many.
I did not even realize until today that the entire concept of Medusa as a hated and feared woman stems from a rape.
Apparently, the goddess Minerva (Roman version of Athena) was so angry that a fellow god had raped the beautiful Medusa in her temple, she punished the victim by assigning her hair to turn into snakes. If you google Medusa with many "uppity" women, you will see that many connections have been made. What an unfortunate coincidence. So now you know.
And the rise in users of social media since the last election is the reason this article in USA Today states that social media, Twitter especially, has become a home for hate speech -- not only regarding political candidates but journalists as well.
Even with the post-election revelations that swaths of voters had been "tricked" by fake news, most voters have continued to rely on sites that take the rhetoric -- and the accusations -- to the extreme.
It is my humble opinion that we still have time to avert outright violence -- or genocide -- in our country as a result of partisan news. But I hope we will be able to see as a nation that such behavior helps no one. The victims that suffer the most are our nation and our values of freedom, justice and fairness.