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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Demons


My immediate thought at the mention of demons is of C.S. Lewis and the Screwtape Letters. If you have not read this slim volume, I highly commend it to you. For those who are not familiar, it consists of several dozen letters ostensibly written by Screwtape, a senior demon, to his nephew, Wormwood, who has taken on a new position as junior tempter. In the letters, Screwtape remonstrates Wormwood’s failure to tempt his ‘patient’, who has recently turned to Christianity instructing him in the nature of human weakness and suggesting various nefarious schemes to exploit them.

While Lewis’ demons appear benign compared to the creatures inhabiting a Hieronymus Bosch canvas neither the grotesque creatures of Bosch’s nightmares nor Lewis’ agents of “our father who art below” come to mind when I think about demons in a contemporary context. Today's demons are you and me and the person next door, or at least some would say so. I'm referring to a practice which appears to have found renewed agency in our discourse and attitudes towards those whose opinions and actions are in opposition to our own.

I am not speaking now of evil, though it is real enough, but rather of the demonization of those who hold differing political, social, racial or economic views. Sadly, it is all too prevalent today; a trait that seems to be wired into our psyche. First year psychology students could tell you that what we fear we belittle so as to render it impotent. But they will also tell you that to the degree we de-humanize our opponents we also empower them. Who are our monsters today--immigrants or those who place them in internment camps, anti-vaxxers, or those who decry them, pro-lifers or pro-choice advocates, neo-nazi's or antifa, liberals or conservatives,. I could go on but there is no need, you know exactly what I am talking about.

I have been spending some time confined indoors of late due to weather and a minor illness and I have had the luxury, if one can call it that, of spending some time lurking on various social media and internet forums that seem to cultivate the worst of this behavior. But we need not go that far to observe this behavior in daily life. Just read the letters to the editor in any daily newspaper—though few of us do any more, or if you prefer, take in the latest barrage of tweets and posts from politicians and their acolytes. They are all filled with demeaning language, and verbal threats intended to render those with opposing views as weak, evil, craven or despicable. When such behavior is tolerated from even the highest of public offices it is little wonder that ordinary citizens feel empowered to emulate the practice.

So why is this behavior so insidious? Social and psychological research on the subject demonstrates that the first steps toward oppression begin with systemic denigration. Once we see our opponents as less than ourselves—as less human and less worthy we are justified in our subjugation. Verbal, behavioral and physical violence follows. This is not news—we have understood this aspect of human behavior both intuitively and scientifically for a long while. But what we understand less well is the manner in which the very demonization in which we engage encourages a reciprocal response. Simply, the more we denigrate and seek to diminish that which we fear the larger it looms as a sinister force, the more justified we can feel in opposing it, but it is we who created the monster.

On those rare occasions when people of opposing views exchange perspectives without resorting to such demonization the opposite effect occurs. Opponents become more human, more like us, even though we may not agree on fundamental issues. Seeing our enemy rendered as a real person and not a boogeyman is the first step toward finding common ground. Sadly, this is not what our leadership today is inclined to sponsor. It is up to us individually and in concert to push back; to refuse to see the demon in others. It is hard, I know. I find my blood boiling at times at injustices, real and perceived, at the cynical and destructive tendency to dismiss other human beings as unworthy, even of life itself. I hate the demonizers--but that is precisely why I need to see them for what they are--by in large, fearful, angry, impotent but human nonetheless. I may not always love my neighbor, but I want for him the same as for myself—the right to live my life without oppression, on equal terms and with equal freedoms. That is the test—and our ability to pass it may well decide our future.


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