The Reasonable Demagogue and the Perpetuation of Hate

reasonable demagogue and the perpetuation of hate

When discussing the fomentation of hate, it’s easy to identify an archetypal demagogue. For example, there are the likes of Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler or the American white supremacist David Duke. Divisive figures such as these are easily singled out because of the highly vocal nature of their rhetoric. In her paper Characteristics of Demagoguery Professor Trish Roberts-Miller of the University of Texas describes their speech in this way:

Demagoguery is a discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric through framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and means by which (not whether) the outgroup should be punished for the current problems of the ingroup. Public debate largely concerns three stages: group identity (who is in the ingroup, what signifies outgroup membership, and how loyal [the demagogue is] to the ingroup); need (usually framed in terms of how evil the outgroup is); what level of punishment to enact against the outgroup (restriction of rights to extermination). (

It appears that the demagoguery of ISIS, likely coupled with mental dysfunction, fueled the recent and tragic massacre of gays in Orlando, Florida. This is not a difficult argument to make. After all, the caliphate’s leaders (the ingroup) disdain for homosexuals (the outgroup), along with show executions of gays (punishment), has been widely publicized. Those pledging allegiance to the ISIS ingroup experience no conflict in exacting punishment on the homosexual outgroup. They are convinced by the demagogue that they are doing god’s work.

Fortunately, the archetypal demagogue’s ego, as well as their grandiose goals, makes working in secret an impossibility. Thus when they are heard ‘ranting loudly on the corner of the town square,’ the natural reaction is to cross to the other side. Rational individuals are generally capable of perceiving the unreasonableness of a demagogue’s stance. So just as quickly as these types of individuals appear on the scene, they often just as swiftly implode back into the dark hole from which they emerged.

There is a different kind of demagoguery, however, that is much more enduring.

For more than 100 years Jehovah’s Witnesses have presented themselves as kind, reasonable people. Listening to their doorstep sermons one can easily be enticed by their promises of world peace and everlasting life.  However, once becoming officially associated with the religion, it is usually only a matter of time before one realizes that the ostensibly peace-loving Jehovah’s Witnesses, in secret, dislike almost everyone. And as the gold foil covering ‘The Organization’ begins thinning an individual may wake up to the fact that they’ve been taken in by a very different kind of strongman: the reasonable demagogue.

The reasonable demagogue goes about his business shrewdly, patiently sowing the seeds of hatred over the course of decades. And unlike archetypal demagoguery, their whispered rhetoric can be almost impossible to eradicate.

A Withheld Embrace

Throughout the world there are a variety of expressions used to indicate general approval of someone: a handshake, an embrace, a kiss on the cheek. There are also a number of acts that indicate disapproval: a slap in the face, verbal insults, physical violence and ultimately murder. The latter are the tools of the archetypal demagogue.

But for the reasonable demagogue officially sanctioning these types of actions would quickly expose their motives. So instead they choose more subtle techniques. Interestingly demagoguery can be directly related to authoritarianism, which is another hallmark of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. Note how the Encyclopedia of Political Communication describes one of the facets of authoritarianism:

“[A]uthoritarians tend to commit to the traditional social norms that are endorsed by society and its established authorities. Targets of authoritarian aggressiveness are often directed toward unconventional people or those defined as social deviants, such as homosexuals.” (Encyclopedia of Political Communication, Sage Publications 2008, pp. 45-47)

Weapons of the Reasonable Demagogue

The weapons of the reasonable demagogue therefore, are withholding a handshake; crossing arms instead of embracing; never leaning forward to bestow a kiss of friendship. Though non-violent these actions signal to adherents the reasonable demagogue’s disapproval of the outgroup. And so while the reasonable demagogue would almost never preach direct violence, they really don’t need to. Adherents have already picked up on the ‘signal’ and may assume that they are empowered to act against the threat.

Continuing on the subject of authoritarianism the Encyclopedia of Political Communication says this: “[A]uthoritarians advocate sanction against those whom they deem detrimental to established authorities. Authoritarian aggression is enhanced by the belief that established authority at least tacitly approves it or that it will help preserve established authority.” (Italics added)

In the mid-1970s the American white supremacist David Duke made something of a shift to the reasonable demagogue by eschewing the typical hoods and white robes of the Ku Klux Klan for suits and a more business-like presentation. He even took a cue from the U.S. civil rights movement and advocated for non-violent expression of white supremacist ideals. Did any of this mean that the KKK and other white supremacist organizations were becoming more inclusive and reasonable? No. Though now wrapped in a cashmere blanket, David Duke’s message still remained one of hate. It seems once a demagogue, always a demagogue.

An Extended Hand

As humanity ventures deeper into the 21st century, thankfully, some religious groups have become less strident towards homosexuals. It certainly hasn’t been a full embrace, but at least they’ve agreed to shake hands. Jehovah’s Witnesses, imagining themselves the last bulwark against complete moral decay, have steadfastly refused to engage the gay community in anyway whatsoever. In fact they’ve step up the rhetoric.

Watchtower’s reasonable demagoguery is on full display in an installment of the animated series Become Jehovah’s Friend. The animations feature two fictional JW kids named Caleb and Sophia. The installment entitled “One Woman, One Man” is intended to plant the seeds of JW demagoguery in the youngest of its members ( Sophia broaches the subject that her friend Carrie has ‘two mommies.’ Ever cheerful, Sophia’s mom responds, “People have their own ideas of what is right or wrong.” Now on its face that is a non-offensive, reasonable statement. But tucked carefully inside the pleasant music, breezy banter and fast moving, colorful animation is the same old anti-gay rhetoric.

“People can change!”

The idea that homosexuality is evil is introduced by an image of someone trying to smuggle an illicit object through airport security but getting caught by the X-ray screener (God sees all right?) Eventually the person leaves the illicit bag behind and dashes onto the road leading to paradise. Get it? He had to get rid of “baggage” from Satan’s old system. This scene is followed by the mom’s excited words, “People can change!”

Finally Sophia says she wants everyone to get into paradise. The solution: Tell her school friend about the paradise, playing with the animals and the resurrection. It is unclear how Sophia apprising her friend of “the animals” and “paradise” would be helpful. After all it’s  Carrie’s two mothers who are the ‘deviants’ in need of saving. These lines were likely included as mild comic relief. After such an in-depth, considerate, well thought out, examination of same-sex marriage the viewer clearly needed a little break.

Again, on it’s face, the two-minute presentation seems reasonable. Yet it has all the earmarks of a good demagogue: “[D]emagoguery is all about certainty, accuracy, and “facts,” all of which can be deduced from 1) “traditional” practices, values, beliefs; 2)“traditional” interpretations of authoritative texts; 3) reasoning backwards from what must necessarily be true to maintain current hierarchies (racial, gender, national, or economic).” (Characteristics of Demagoguery by Trish Roberts-Miller)

The Problem With a Reasonable Demagogue

When we consider the archetypal demagogue, in specific ways, they are similar to a severe case of the flu. Their ideologies can quickly overcome a vulnerable individual’s reason and if not dealt with swiftly can result in that individual’s harm. However all is not necessarily lost. There are enough individuals who have been mesmerized by the expression of a demagogue but have later been able to pull themselves back from the brink (e.g. consider the turnaround required by average German citizen who fell under the sway of Adolf Hitler).

The problem with reasonable demagogues is that their ideologies are less like the flu and more like a slowly metastasizing cancer.

As is evidenced by the “One Man, One Woman” video, at a very early age, JWs begin the condemnation of homosexuality. Even with their arguments’ two-dimensionality, the rhetoric never stops. That’s because the simple narratives offered by Watchtower aren’t really intended to truly help anyone. They are rather used to service the illusion of organizational reasonableness.

For example, a more helpful scenario is this one: What if Sophia is struggling with her sexuality and using this opportunity to test her mother’s reaction? That would have indeed been a useful topic and driven animated discussion (pun intended) among JW parents. Instead, in the real word, where a young JW girl could actually use assistance as she struggles with her sexuality, the main take-aways from the animation are 1). “Something is wrong with me.” 2). “I have to figure out how to fix myself” 3). “If I can’t fix myself I won’t make it into paradise” 4). “If I don’t make it into paradise then that means I’ll be destroyed at Armageddon.”

Child Intuition

Children are far more intuitive than Watchtower gives them credit for. They are fully capable of reading between the lines. And what exists in-between the lines of Watchtower’s animated demagoguery has the capacity to haunt a young gay JW for the balance of their adolescence. That I can say from experience.

Now let’s assume that it’s not Sophia but Caleb that is struggling with his sexuality. The animation has already established that Mom is a lost cause. She probably drank the reasonable demagoguery Kool Aid decades ago. But now, thanks to these slickly produced animations, the seeds of intolerance have also been planted in his sister Sophia. If Caleb ever decides to come out as gay, he will face assured rejection from both his parents and sister. And unfortunately for Caleb, the longer his family is associated with JW’s the more hardened they will be against him. Although it has taken a decade or two, the reasonable demagogue’s patience has paid off, the cancer has metastasized and is now on course to consume the family.

A Thumb on the Scale

No one is likely to debate that the human mind is a complicated organ sometimes reacting in completely inexplicable ways. And certainly this is the case when one is talking about an individual with a dysfunctional mind. However even in dysfunction it seems that the mind trolls the familiar and ingrained on its way to self-destruction. First though lets look at the decision making process when everything is working correctly.

It is often said that when a mentally healthy individual has to make an important decision they ‘weigh’ their options. It’s a great word picture as one can easily see a scale where all the ‘weights’ (or reasons) for taking a specific course are placed on one side and on the other, all the reason not to.

Some of the rationales for or against a course of action will be directly related to the mind’s practical desire for self-preservation (e.g. “Is what I’m about to embark upon likely to cause me serious harm?”). Once these ‘lighter,’ practical considerations are placed on the scale, heavier matters must be considered. These are related to an individual’s core beliefs such as concepts learned during a person’s childhood, ideas on morality, religious beliefs. In fact, in some instances of decision-making, these core weights are already on the scale tilting it in a certain direction even before practical considerations are deliberated. So it’s easy to see the potential dangers if those weights are the product of demagoguery.

If children’s parents instill within them the idea that gay people are evil, repulsive and immoral those concepts and biases will frequently be loaded onto the scale long before more rationale logic can be considered. If the child’s religious upbringing also espouses this sort of demonization there are now two out-sized weights heavily influencing decision-making. Then imagine that a true archetypal demagogue enters an individual’s life, pressing a thumb down on a scale already weighted towards intolerance.

Suddenly you have Orlando, Florida.

When Omar Mateen walked into that gay nightclub not only was he carrying an automatic weapon, he was carrying 29 years of grudges, mental baggage, religious demagoguery and if some news reports are correct, self-loathing.

When sorting through what could have motivated him to commit such a heinous act there are obvious and less obvious issues to consider. As a child did his parents communicate to him distaste for homosexuals? His Muslim faith is consistent with Christianity in the condemnation of homosexuals. Did this affect his reasoning? He had clearly been taken in by the demagoguery of ISIS. But was this association merely a thumb on an already hate-heavy scale?

Finally some news outlets have reported that Mateen was allegedly using gay dating apps fueling speculation that he himself was a closeted homosexual. ( Now whether this assertion is true remains to be seen. If it is true it adds an additional ugly twist to this tragedy. Was it a mass murder or a mass murder/suicide? According to Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, “In many cases, these are people who are at war with themselves and they are turning this internal conflict outward.” Whether Mateen was gay or not one must ask: Who was responsible for starting this ‘war of the mind?’

Remember that for most children, coming to terms with ‘non-standard’ sexuality is a painful and confusing process. The task is made even more difficult when the child is part of an uncompromising family. Such a child is beholden to unbending religious precepts.  Children doomed to stand on this uneven battlefield quickly discover that although religion packs the gunpowder, it is the family that fires the first shots.

Don’t Leave Me Hanging

About two weeks before the tragedy in Orlando I was involved in a revealing 45-minute conversation with a JW relative. I have patiently sat through many ignorant remarks made my Jehovah’s Witnesses. But this conversation was particularly dumbfounding. The individual staunchly – and at length – blamed personal woes as well as the financial woes of the United States on the LGBT community. No amount of reasoning could tip the scales back towards rationality – which really shouldn’t have surprised me. This individual has been subjected to the reasonable demagoguery of Watchtower since childhood.

And it had worked.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and similarly rigid religions have failed in their efforts to truly promote a peaceful society due to their refusal to just simply ‘shake hands’ with the gay community. Shaking hands does not mean a full embrace. It simply means trying to understand the perspective of gays rather than offering pat, unrealistic solutions. It means toning down the condemnatory rhetoric that reinforces self-loathing and creates bleak prospects especially for young JWs. It means regularly acknowledging that there are gay JW’s who will never be able to “change”. Still, it means celebrating them for the kind of unwavering faith and endurance a garden variety JW has no concept of.

Of course I won’t hold my breath waiting for concessions from / Watchtower.

As Professor Trish Roberts-Miller elucidates:

“[D]emagoguery imagines public deliberation as a place in which people with accurate perception point out the Real Truth to others who, if they are also capable of unmediated perception, will instantly see it. Public discourse is, in other words, primarily a realm in which one demonstrates the clarity of one’s vision, one’s ingroup membership, one’s loyalty to that group, and one’s willingness to engage in punitive action on behalf of the ingroup against the outgroup(s).”

She adds,

“[To] react with anything other than punitive violence (to try to think about the situation, or deliberate on it, or include the outgroup in any deliberations) is weak, vacillating, cowardly, and feminine.”

It seems once a demagogue, always a demagogue.

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