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January 26th, 2012 @ 7:27 pm by admin
That’s how the father of one of my childhood friends use to refer to Muamar Qaddafi back in the early 1980s when Libya was declared a pariah state for acquiring chemical weapons.
Of course, those were also the days when Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden were Western allies against the Soviet Union instead of faces on the CIA’s most-wanted list.
Lest you think my friend’s dad uncouth, he was merely voicing the common tendency to reduce anyone who dared oppose the West to madman status. How else to explain their behavior?
After all, Richard Dawkins has given us what seems to be an airtight list of options for how to rationalize people who disagree with us:
It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in X, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that.)
We’ve displayed little of Dawkins’ false civility over the years. Forget ignorant and stupid. We’ve been all too quick to leap to the conclusion that our enemies simply have to be either wicked or insane–or perhaps a combination of the above.
Never mind that Gaddafi was close friends with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela and that he was one of the primary funders of his anti-Apartheid movement.
Forget the fact that Saddam Hussein was once given a key to the city of Detroit.
And consign to oblivion allegations that Bin Laden received direct training from the CIA.
These people were madmen, lunatics, evil incarnate, grim shadows of human beings with so few redeeming qualities that we could only conceive of a single solution to the threat they posed to the world.
A Final Solution.
This isn’t to minimize any of the horrible actions (both documented and alleged) that have been attributed to these men. I’m only seeking a way to understand their behavior apart from Dawkins’ gross oversimplification of competing epistemological positions.
Which reminds me of a conversation I had with Stephen Sizer a while back about the process by which the establishment tends to deal with people who disagree with them. Out of that conversation we came up with a series of stages, all of which coincidentally begin with the letter “I”:
- Ignore: They always start by hoping you’ll just go away, often refusing to even engage in debate for fear of creating the impression there truly is a rational objection to the status quo.
- Insult: When avoidance becomes impossible, they’ll mock and ridicule you, make you out to be a heretic, a conspiracy theorist, a madman, etc.
- Intimidate: When simple mockery fails, the gloves come off.
- Isolate: If you won’t back down, they seek to divide and conquer. Impose sanctions. Turn your friends against you.
- Incriminate: They either frame you or smear you and force you to defend yourself, thus creating the appearance of guilt even if the charges prove to be false.
- Incarcerate: If the charges stick, they stick you behind bars.
- Incinerate: When all else fails, they put you in the cross-hairs.
I’m not sure if we always follow these steps precisely, and we certainly don’t always follow them straight through to the end. But I think it’s a fairly accurate assessment of the process of othering that goes on as we seek to dehumanize someone against whom we feel inclined to do violence. (Incidentally, in the case of nation states, you we can add another step called “Invade” somewhere between 5 and 7.)
Of course, this makes me think of the traditional Western doctrine of hell (not much doesn’t these days), which ends with the wicked spending eternity in some sort of inferno, be it literal or figurative.
Could there be a correlation between the othering process I’ve described above and our understanding of how God ultimately deals with “the wicked”?
Admittedly, correlation does not imply causation, because it’s difficult to establish which came first–this process of othering or the particular interpretation of hell I call “Infernalism.”
Some will argue that Infernalism is merely a divine ratification of this othering process. Of course we need a Final Solution for the wicked. How else can justice be accomplished? Our human justice system is merely an imperfect shadow of God’s perfect justice, which will be meted out to all at the end of this evil age.
Others object that we’ve read our tendency toward dehumanization into the Bible. Worse, we’ve projected this process onto God and then used it to justify our own acts of violence as we become God’s self-appointed agents of wrath on earth.
I hope you can see that what we believe about such things is far from an academic discussion. They can have massive repercussions in the real world.
It’s also a good reminder for the next time we’re tempted to draw conclusions about the alleged mental or moral state of someone we view as the “other.” I hope it makes us pause and ask an important question about the process in which we are engaged…
Is it human or divine?