How to demonize a minority group

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By: M. de Jong

In an ideal community every person should have the right to put forward their personal opinions, and these opinions should be respected. This is what a democracy promises. In reality there turn out to be 'mechanisms' in all existing communities that render the aforesaid a mere utopian dream. Even in communities that think of themselves as distinctly democratic, mechanisms are applied. There are many ways to silence an individual, but the most important mechanism, which needs other mechanisms in order to function, is the process of criminalization. The foremost aspect of silencing an individual is to convince them that they had better not vent their opinion, whether it be a political opinion (communist in the USA), a religious opinion (Christian in a fundamentalist Muslim state), or a sexual preference (pedophilia). The paramount method to shut them up is to make them afraid to express their opinion or feelings.

To accomplish this, it is necessary to criminalize the aspect of the individual's personality that is to be oppressed. The most important mechanisms to realize this are speech, censorship and the culturally regulated system of 'beliefs'; the 'truths' that are valid in a culture. Often it's not so easy to distinguish between these various mechanisms, as they partly mix with each other. Making use of the media is a strong support for mechanisms. The media tend to side with the majority and have the strongest say in the exchange of information and the dissemination of opinions. They are able to introduce new concepts to speech and culture. Likewise, taboo is a powerful mechanism to counter the spread of generally unwanted opinions and new concepts.

As George Orwell pointed out in his fictional novel '1984', speech can be a very powerful tool to keep individuals in check. It can literally make it impossible for individuals to express a certain opinion in a credible way. It can also be used very effectively to get people to think about various subjects in predesignated ways. Even slight changes of meaning in normal speech can have a great impact on how people think about certain behaviors or concepts. Especially the Americans are very skilled in manipulating speech with the use of hidden messages.

As an example we can look at the word "propaganda". Originally it was a neutral word that was probably first used by the church of Rome for the "Congregatio de Propaganda Fide" (Congregation for Propagation of the Faith), an organization of Roman Catholic cardinals founded in 1622 to carry on missionary work. As such the Nazis ("Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda") used it. But the Americans knew precisely how to turn it into a negative term. Everywhere, though, much less subtle examples can be found, ranging from technical and medical terms ('shaken baby syndrome') to legal terms (consistently depicting people as 'offenders' and 'victims'). Also, a word with a negative connotation is often consistently misused in situations that in fact don't fit the description at all (calling a mutually enjoyed sexual act 'rape'). The modern French philosopher Foucault has written extensively on this matter.

Another mechanism that's being used is explicit as well as hidden censorship. Society's opinion can be manipulated simply by making public discussion about certain things unwanted. On the other hand, lifting a taboo that's rooted in a culture can also serve to blacken the subject that was covered and even protected by the taboo. By suddenly breaking it up, a situation that's in fact quite innocent can escalate completely as people are suddenly faced with it and do not know how to deal with it.

It is hard to fathom the efficiency of mechanisms that aren't recognized as such, but to realize how profoundly they can influence our thinking, we need only look back into history. For instance, the persecution of religious minorities that became known as heretics ('ketters' in Dutch, from Cathari) during the Middle Ages were exceptionally dramatic. Although the minorities were only small groups of people preaching a slightly different form of Christianity (actually a 'sweeter', less militant form), the word 'ketter' got a negative connotation and it still has, regardless of our present knowledge that what caused it was mere prejudice.

Another small minority group from the Middle Ages that was heavily oppressed consisted of people who tried to maintain a pre-Christian, paganish, nature-oriented religion, and who were known as wiccas. In popular speech they were called 'witches'. These 'witches' still haven't lost their negative image, although it has long been proven that the image was created by competitive Christians who sought to make public enemies of them.

Every good criminologist can tell you how criminalization works. The key to competent criminalization is to simply take a random concept that can be presented to a large public as evil, and to connect this with the group that is to be discriminated against. The prejudice can then be developed. Once this process has started, it is self-sustaining and strengthens automatically. By directing the attention to certain aspects and ways of conduct of persons from the group (or by claiming that some criminal is part of the group), and by overemphasizing and enlarging them, the group can be made to appear more and more evil.

Because persons from the target group grow up with the manipulative idiom, and learn that they are continually connected with things that are known to be evil, they will eventually start to believe in the misconceptions, and, what's worse, they will act accordingly. This will cause the process to accelerate, as proof is being given that the beliefs are correct. Again we can look at the medieval witch hunts: many people sincerely believed that they were witches with supernatural power, and they acted accordingly, for instance by casting a spell on somebody. We learn that the process of criminalization includes getting people of the target group to apply to themselves the negative concepts of speech that have been created by a majority.

Another active mechanism is isolation of the individual. Here the military strategy of 'isolation and extermination' is being applied. An isolated and silenced enemy is rendered harmless. The invisible barriers that prevent members of the target group from organizing themselves are once again realized by the process of criminalization, taboos, and legal as well as emotional obstacles. It is made difficult, if not impossible, for them to come in touch with each other and to organize resistance. So it is prevented that their opinions are spread, and the notion is introduced that no one else backs the opinions and, subsequently, that the ideas had better not be disseminated.

People who are hedged in like this, who cannot talk about their ideas and emotions, become frustrated. They literally turn into 'desperados'. The mental pressure is likely to become too large for some of them, so that sooner or later, driven by their frustration, fear, and selfdisgust, they will commit an act of despair. They break the 'social agreement' they have with society, because the latter in their eyes fails to live up to it. The basis of every social agreement is to respect the right of people to try and be happy, as long as the method of achieving happiness doesn't demonstrably inhibit someone else's happiness. If silenced and criminalized people are convinced that their desired way to achieve happiness doesn't inevitably inhibit other people's happiness, they must draw the conclusion that society is not living up to its 'promise'.

Often, an act of despair only culminates in even graver feelings of guilt that make it easier for the majority to criminalize and harder for the oppressed person to defend himself. Frustration leads to the perversion of intentions (a person's original intentions change), and so there is an enlarged opportunity for a criminalized person's conduct to be used to prove his bad disposition, and even for legal action to be taken against him. The person himself may not be aware of the existing mechanisms, and, due to the position he has been manipulated into, may draw the conclusion that he really is inherently bad. This he may even proclaim in the desperate assumption that it will moderate the oppressing majority's opinion. It is possible that an individual from an oppressed group turns on others of the same group. He projects his own frustration and selfdisgust on the group, and so becomes an enemy who is even more dangerous than the comparatively languid oppressing majority.

The original opinions of members of a criminalized group can be of great value, even to the majority that so frenetically tries to crush them. Instead of listening to the voice of reason, the mass prefer to believe popular fairy tales and twisted accounts that are spread by the media. What's reckoned important aren't the original ideas of the oppressed, but the languid lies and easy bigotry of the majority. Many people become victims of this situation, and hurt themselves as well as the community they live in.

source: 'How to Demonize a Minority Group' by M. de Jong; OK Magazine, no. 67; March 1999