Demonization and Authoritarianism

Demonization has been a central concern of mine as it is, I think, what the path to authoritarianism is paved with whether the demonizers are on the right or the left. It is one of the temptations that lead us down the slippery slope toward repression, state violence, and more. Why?

First, because demonization animates hyper-nationalism as nationalisms are fundamentally xenophobic, clarified in opposition to perceived enemies. And, very importantly, demonization also favors the right in the U.S., as far right movements lean into historical bigotries in order to build on the nationalist impulse and suggest that exclusion on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or race, or even race/ethnic/religious cleansing is in the national interest.

But, second, demonizing benefits ethnic nationalists like the white nationalists in the U.S. whether they’re doing it or we are, as right wing and left wing demonizing are like bookends that make sense of one idea – that there are demons. When only the right is doing it, we progressives are able to represent the truth, that demons are fiction, and clarify the real problems that are causing people to react with rage to begin with. But when we let go of that truth, we reify (or as Dr. King put it, thingify and make to seem real) demons.

Third, demonization often treats as exotic acts that are commonplace, like sexual assault. Understanding how commonplace sexual assault is opens the door to an array of solutions that we have preemptively shut down in favor of law and order responses based on the notion that those who sexually assault women are demons, which suggests they are rare, and not intimate partners (51%) who find their way into the lives of 1 in 5 women who will experience rape because they are far more complex, far more like most men than unlike them.

Fourth, related to my third suggestion, demonization is a deflection that stands in the way of deep cultural change.

And, finally, fifth, demonization feeds an authoritarian impulse – as long as the rules serve and protect us, that’s all that matters. Those it victimizes are demons and beyond consideration, justifying super-authoritarian responses that will, almost certainly, be used against us as they become normalized or even institutionalized.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.