Sunday, August 03, 2008

Demonization in America

[This is a talk I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Murfreesboro, TN in response to the murder of two people, Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, and the wounding of six others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville last Sunday.]

We live in frightening times. We live in times when shouting passes for conversation, and reasoned dialogue is too boring to air. We live in times when, in the name of free speech, we allow ourselves to be inundated with hate speech. We live in times when it is not enough to disagree with others, we must demonize them. We live in a demon-haunted time.

Jim David Adkisson, the man who murdered two people and wounded 6 others at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville last Sunday, was slaying demons. He called them liberals, and was fed a never-ending stream of vile lies that told him these demon liberals hate America, hate our soldiers, hate the family, the flag, the fetus, and God. They are out to destroy everything for which America stands. Killing them is a moral imperative.

What Jim Adkisson heard, and what tens of millions of other Americans hear every day is the steady demonization of our fellow Americans. Demonization is the fifth of a five stage conditioning process Dr. Anthony Stahelski of Central Washington University, has identified as the key to turning people into terrorists. The five stages are: depluralization, self-deindividuation, other-deindividuation, dehumanization, and demonization. I believe that our entire culture is in the grip of this process. We are becoming a nation of potential terrorists haunted by demons.

Depluralization removes you from any influences outside your group. What you read, watch on television, listen to on the radio, where you worship have to be all of a piece- each reinforcing the other. It is not that you stop thinking, it’s that you no longer have the capacity to think outside the parameters of the group.

Self-deindividuation strips away your personal identity. What you wear, what you buy, what you eat, drive, drink, think, study, and say is determined by your group. Thinking for yourself becomes impossible, because there is no self left to think at all.

Other-deindividuation strips away the personal identities of people with whom you don’t agree, your so-called “enemies.” They become the mirror opposite of you, thinking, living, and promoting ideas that are not just different, but demonic. They are a threat to everything that is good, decent, and God-fearing. In short, they aren’t us.

Dehumanization explains why your enemies feel so alien: they aren’t really human at all. These subhumans can’t be converted to your ideas; they are incapable of understanding them. And yet they seem to thrive, and to threaten everything you cherish.

Demonization reveals why this is true: the “other” isn’t just subhuman, they are anti-human, they are demons in league with the Devil whose only passion is your destruction. Demonization follows dehumanization the way one end of a Slinky follows the other. Not only are they wrong, they are evil, and evil must be obliterated.

America today is a nation of demons. The “other” is everywhere. It doesn’t matter if we are conservative or liberal, the disease of demonization has infected our body politic and we are rotting from within.

What happened at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church was a symptom of life in demon-haunted America.

This is from a sworn affidavit by one of the police officers who interviewed Adkisson:

“During the interview Adkisson stated that he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets. Adkisson made statements that because he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement that he would then target those that had voted them into office. Adkisson stated that he had held these beliefs for about the last ten years.”

As any military expert will tell you, it takes time to train a person to kill. Humans are not natural born killers. We cannot just look another human being in the face and pull the trigger. We have to be trained to overcome our compassion and sense of connection with the other, and the easiest way to do that is through dehumanization and demonization.

It took Mr. Adkisson ten years to deny the humanity of his neighbors. How many other Jim Adkissons are there in America?

Hatred has been building in this country for a long time. We are ready to blow.

So what can we do? Not as a nation or a people— those kinds of policy questions are beyond me. What can we do here? What can the Unitarian Fellowship of Murfreesboro do? Three basic choices come to my mind.

First, we can circle the wagons, search people for weapons as they come through our doors, and worry that every new face is potentially that of a terrorist here to do us harm. This might work for a while, but in the end we will stop coming here ourselves.

Second, we can align ourselves more fiercely with liberalism and argue more loudly against the evil right wing pundits, and loud-mouthed media demagogues, as well as your run-of-the-mill gay-bashing, misogynist, racist, and anti-human conservatives. But this only perpetuates the demonization threatening America, and does nothing to end it.

I admit to finding both of these options tempting, but in the end, a third option, the classically liberal option wins out. Instead of closing our doors, we should open them all the wider. Instead of shutting down opinionated speech we should invite our neighbors over for tea and conversation.

Indeed, if we had the money, we should take out a series of full-page ads in the Daily News Journal, one each day for a week, articulating our approach (we have no single opinion) to the most controversial issues of our most uncivil culture war.

When I sat down to prepare this talk I turned first to John Lennon’s song, Imagine. I had thought to build my talk around those lyrics:

Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too
Imagine all the people/Living life in peace

But I didn’t do this. Why, because in the end, John Lennon is wrong. There are things worth dying for. If I am going to die, let me die for something worthwhile.

Let me die because I refuse to demonize African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, women, Muslims, Catholics, or any one else.

Let me die because I insist that the dignity of my gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered brothers and sisters be honored, upheld, and legally enforced.

Let me die because I insist upon reason even when dealing with revelation.

Let me die because I fight and vote to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and resist it being torn to shreds by a government so drunk on fear that it no longer trusts the very values it was entrusted to protect.

Let me die because I dare to love even in the face of white-hot heat.

Let me die because what I stand for is worth dying for.

I’m not saying the victims of Jim David Adkisson are martyrs, though some were certainly heroes. Martyrs die for their faith, these poor people died because of it. They died because Jim Adkisson was infected with the hate that is fast becoming the life-blood of America. Jim Adkisson was as much a victim as those he murdered.

I don’t feel sorry for Jim Adkisson; I feel sorry for America. I can’t forgive Jim David Adkisson; only those he hurt can do that. Nor will I bury my head in the sand and say he is a lonely, troubled, and sick man deserving of pity. He is not. Jim Adkisson is part of the madness that is sweeping our nation. He is not the first to murder the demons he imagines and fears, nor will he be the last. But until you and I act to end the demonization that threatens our country, Jim Adkisson will just be a footnote to the next demonslayer who acts to save America by murdering Americans.


Peter Schogol said...

Insofar as we can imagine the victims as heterosexuals, it might be the first documented moment of straights dying as martyrs for gays.

I am deeply humbled by their faith.

Judy said...

I jumped up, applauded, said "right on brother Rami," and sent this posting to friends. When I sat down and checked my email there was one from a long-standing acquaintance warning me of the dangers of Muslims, immigrants, gays, and baby killers - telling me how "they" are the new generation of terrorists - and lamenting the fact that I just didn't understand the danger they each and collectively posed.
I am so tired of hearing this. I don't think I have the energy to invite folks like that in for dialogue because there is never dialogue - only diatribe.
I am losing faith in this country and in this world. The Yetzer HaRah has assumed the forms of Venus and Adonis and the world is flocking to embrace it unquestioningly.
Where is the blessing in this?

Patti said...

I too applaud and believe that this talk must have come at just the right time for the folks in Murfreesboro. They were fortunate to hear it and experience a bit of healing amongst them.

Rami, I go back to your teaching about the divine in all of us. It is so easy to demonize what hurts or scares us. You, however, have called us to better options...for which there are no words. It is interesting we can "demonize", but how about "godize" or "divinize"? If there is a similar word, meaning to see the divine in all people, I don't know what it is. But we somehow need to do that with the Jim Askissons of the world. Don't we?

If I am off base here, let me have it!! Part of me thinks it fair that he be the head that continually gets his scalp devoured by the Jeffrey Dahmer look alike in our Hieronymus Bosch hell-scape. But there is a greater part of me that wants to see God in all of us, even the ones who don't seem to deserve it. For deep inside, I know I don’t deserve mercy or grace much either.

It pleases me to look for the divine, to trust that it is there in all of us, even if I don’t see it and even when our experience seems to tell us differently. Maybe I am just fought out. It is so much wiser to open are doors than to keep up the fight that only exacerbates the hate.

Karen said...

Beautiful, Rabbi Rami. Thank you for sharing this. And Judy's frustration echoes in the corridors of my mind as well.

Before reading this posting, I was (and still am) thinking about your post last week about interfaith gatherings and my response to it. "Demonization in America" feeds right into this.

I'm not sure it's possible to have productive conversation with those sitting across the aisle, so to speak. We all might hope for this, but in actuality -- because of fear -- because of the need to be right -- it's near impossible to achieve.

Just in my own realm of existence, I have a difficult time conversing with those to whom I'm close. I love talking about God, religion, spirituality, and all ideas stemming for these, but I'm quickly stonewalled. By the mother-in-law who believes that ANY church outside of her own is "dead of faith." By the born-again friend who has no desire to talk about or be questioned about anything outside of her box of "being saved through Jesus." By nonreligious family members who don't want to talk about anything except everyday occurrences for fear of causing some sort of rift in the family, being considered an outcast, who knows?

To break down demonization, we must start at the beginning and break down depluralization. Which means we would need to break free from our fears of exploring something new, from our need to be right. It means we have to be able to reach out to other groups and find the common ground and embrace it and focus on it and nurture it. And be willing to accept that our hearts will break a little because we are right and we can't get them to come completely across the aisle. But we can still hold hands across that aisle through our common ground link.

We don't need new ideas and new conflicts to fuel our fledgling conversations. We are still dealing with all the freakin' baggage from old ideas and old conflicts. But if we can quit focusing on the fears, the negatives, the opposites, and just keep our focus on the common ground, the love, the positives -- and not get distracted so easily -- we have a chance.

I know I ended this weakly, but my mind is scattered in a million different directions, as often happens when I start thinking about this stuff!

P.S. - just quickly read Soldiermom's take, and I agree with you about recognizing the divine in all!

Patti said...

Your post is strong and well worded. I am so with ya on the difficulty of having these kind of conversations with people!

I found that if I just listened and stopped trying to get my point across, eventually, one by one they started listening to me. It is an itty bitty miracle for damn sure. It has to start let it be with us.

Unknown said...

Rabbi, "demonizing" can also be a symptom of mental illness. It seems to me that those who knew this man personally had to have recognized that he was spiraling. A better explanation for this man's actions may be paranoid Schizophrenia. I do not say this to excuse his actions but clearly in this country we are swift to recognize physical illness and slow to admit that our loved ones may not have a broken body but a broken brain.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

I just want to thank you all for these incredibly thoughtful comments. I have been so busy with book deadlines and the start of the fall semester at MTSU that I haven't had the time to add to the discussion myself. And, quite honestly, you are all saying it so well, I don't know what I could add anyway. It is just comforting to know I am not alone.

Patti said...

Phew...good thing you are just busy working. I can now call off the National Guard and Cleetus with his smell hounds. ;0)