Spiderman and the Green GoblinThose of us who enjoy watching action movies are used to the imagery represented to us on the silver screen, each time in a slightly differing version: a hero - human or superhuman - on the one hand, and confronting him, on the opposite end of the scale, is a demonic super villain or a wicked inhumane ‘bad guy’. Indeed, movie directors don’t hold out on any resources, such as special effects or extravagant makeup, to create monstrous characters that embody the essence of Evil. It’s "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" – over and over again.
In days past it was the storytellers and the inquisitors whose job it was to transform human beings into witches or demons. Whoever was unlucky enough to be labeled as a demon, even if they were completely innocent of any crime, had a hard time getting rid of that label. As the authors Proff. Haim Omer and Nahi Alon1 describe in their book “Demonization in Personal Relations” it was a common belief that humans can unwittingly become a receptive vessel for dark forces, which worked through them to spread and multiply evil. The devil’s servants were well camouflaged and hence anyone doubting their existence was considered an accomplice to their evildoing. Therefore a vigorous crusade was necessary to thwart both the demons and the heretics. To be purified from the evil you needed to confess and to undergo a series of tortures that were supposed to bring an end to evil and redemption- for both the individual and the community.
If those ideas seem to you superstitions that are no longer valid, try following through the process of demonization that often plays a crucial part in the escalation of conflicts, on both a personal level and a societal level. The widespread belief that suffering is caused by evil causes triggers people who are in a state of conflict to characterize the opposing side in a negative manner. When someone is labeled as an ‘enemy’ we tend to appropriate harmful intentions, motives and characteristics to them, that soon spread beyond the original context of the conflict to describe the entire personality and essence of the other person/collective. That is how a chasm between “me” and “them” is formed in the consciousness of both sides: I’m a good person, while he’s essentially evil and clearly his actions intend to do me harm; The other side is aggressive and has only his interests in mind, while I’m being threatened and therefore act out of self-defense. She’s being inconsiderate and unreliable, while I would like to solve this disagreement; He’s full of hatred and vengeance while my own actions are dictated by reason.
During the darkest times of the twentieth century, when demonization towards certain groups of human beings escalated to complete dehumanization and de-legitimization, point at the danger of falling down the slippery slope from the negative characterization of someone to the justification of using violence against them. When my group or I are considered righteous, moral and civilized, it’s very easy to claim the other side is violent, corrupt and uncivilized. Further along the way there will be someone who’ll claim “they” are also primitive, dirty, lazy and inferior, and that they should be punished for daring to use violence against us. After all, if they are unworthy, harming them is permissible. And here they are again: Spiderman on the one hand and the Green Goblin on the other. Us and Them. The Good Guys and the Bad Guys.
According to Omer and Alon, should we become aware we are going through a process of demonizing another, we can take anti-demonizing steps – an approach that allows growth beyond the narrow viewpoint of “I’m totally right” and “She’s completely wrong”. You can attempt to leave aside the negative image you have created of the other side and start uncovering other layers of his or her story – for instance, their life circumstances that led them to behave in a certain way. Even if I find his actions completely reprehensible, could it be that he’s suffering because of the conflict between us? Could it be that part of his legitimate basic needs aren’t being fulfilled? And maybe he’s also feeling threatened and anxious- as a result of my actions? The widening of one's perspective enables you to understand, sooner or later, the internal logic of the “enemy”, and later on to lessen the degree of suspicion and anger towards him. From there on the road to peace and reconciliation is a somewhat more possible.
1 (Hebrew) Edited by Dr. Green, Sefarim Publishers, Sefad, Israel, 2005