What is Demonization?

Demonization is a process through which people target individuals or groups as the embodiment of evil.[1] This involves a sequence of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization, which results in generating hatred of the objectified target.[2] One way to do this is to claim that the demonized scapegoat is plotting against the public good.[3] This often involves demagogic appeals. With demagoguery, followers must see the movement leader as charismatic, or the performance is easily interpreted as buffoonery. Demagoguery has been used historically not only by populists to denounce corrupt elites, but also by government officials to justify political repression—in both instances based on fears of conspiracies by real and imaginary subversive elements.[4]

[1] J.A. Aho, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy, Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1994, pp. 107–21; Pagels, The Origin of Satan; D.N. Smith; “The Social Construction of Enemies: Jews and the Representation of Evil,” Sociological Theory, 1996, vol. 14, no. 3; L. Noël, Intolerance, A General Survey.

[2] The sequence concept for generating hatred was suggested by K.S. Stern at the Conference to Establish the Field of Hate Studies, at the Institute for Action against Hate, Gonzaga University Law School, Spokane, Washington, March 18–20. See also, K.S. Stern, “The Need for an Interdisciplinary Field of Hate Studies,” Journal of Hate Studies, 2003/04, vol. 3, no.1.

[3] R.S. Wistrich (ed.), Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism, and Xenophobia, Routledge, [1999] 2003.

[4] G..W. Allport, “Demagogy,” in R.O. Curry and T. M. Brown (eds) Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972, pp. 263–76.