Essay:The Protocols of Ritual Defamation
"The critical element in political maneuver for advantage is the creation of meaning: the construction of beliefs about the significance of events, of problems, of crisis, of policy changes, and of leaders. The strategic need is to immobilize opposition and mobilize support. While coercion and intimidation help to check resistance in all political systems, the key tactic must always be the evocation of meanings that legitimize favored courses of action..." MURRAY EDELMAN, "Political Language and Political Reality," PS, Winter 1985.
“At the extreme, the process of stereotyping eventuates in dehumanization: the enemy is judged to be so inhumanly evil or contemptible that anything may be done to “it” without subjectively compromising one’s own humanity and sense of loyalty.” AUSTIN TURK, Political Criminality, 1982.
“Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.” ALAN BLOOM, The Closing of the American Mind, 1987.
Definitions: The term “protocol” refers to a set of rules or established method. The term “ritual” refers to a predictable, stereotyped pattern that embraces number of elements, as in a ritual. The term “defamation” refers to the destruction or attempted destruction of the reputation, status, or standing in the community of a person or group of like-minded persons by deliberately unfair, false, misleading or hateful communication.
Defamation might be confused with mere criticism, opposition or expression of opinion, which is necessary for a free society. The essence of a democratic system depends on a large degree of freedom of expression and of give and take in the marketplace of ideas. It is only through the vigorous exploration of alternative explanations and sorting of conflicting facts and competing ideas that wise and reasonably just decisions can take place. Hypersensitive individuals or groups often claim to have been unfairly defamed when they have merely been criticized or challenged with results unsatisfactory to themselves. It is important to differentiate between deliberate ritual defamation on the one hand, and mere criticism and disagreement on the other.
For the purposes of this brief essay, the central element is defamation and the necessarily accompanying stigmatization in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the subject, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and “insensitivity” or non-observance of taboos on the part of others.
Ritual defamation differs in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized, premeditated and skillfully applied with the idea of neutralizing or eliminating an opponent rather than simply refuting or proving him incorrect. Ritual defamation is often performed by an organization or representative of a special interest group.
The elements of a Ritual Defamation are these:
- 1. In a ritual defamation the subject (hereinafter referred to as the "offender") must have violated a particular taboo in some way, usually by expressing or identifying with a forbidden attitude, opinion or belief. It is not necessary that he “do” anything about it or undertake any particular course of action, only that they engage in some form of communication or expression. In some cases even that is not necessary, only that they are associated with or "linked" to a taboo idea or behavior in some way. It is largely directed against presumed attitudes, opinions or beliefs.
- 2. The primary method of attack in a ritual defamation is to assail the character of the offender, and never to offer more than a perfunctory challenge to the particular attitudes, opinions or beliefs expressed or implied. Any kind of debate with the offender is absolutely forbidden. The primary tool of ritual defamation is stigmatization through character assassination.
- 3. An important rule in ritual defamation is to avoid engaging in any kind of debate over the truthfulness or reasonableness of what has been expressed, only to condemn it. To debate the issue opens the issue up for examination and discussion of its merits and to consider the evidence or arguments that may support the forbidden views, which is just what the ritual defamer is trying to avoid. The primary goal of a ritual defamation is censorship and repression and marginalization of the offender.
- 4. The offender is often somebody in the public eye - someone who is vulnerable to public opinion - although perhaps in a very modest way. It could be a businessman, schoolteacher, public official, newspaper writer, scholar, or merely an outspoken citizen. Visibility enhances vulnerability to ritual defamation.
- 5. An attempt, often successful, is made to involve others in the ritual defamation. In the case of a public official, other public officials will be urged to denounce the offender. In the case of a student, other students will be called upon to reject and ostracize them, in the case of a teacher, other teachers will be recruited, and so on.
- 6. In order for a ritual defamation to be effective, the offender must be dehumanized to the extent that he becomes thoroughly identified with the offending attitude, opinion or belief, and in a manner which distorts it to the point where it appears at its most extreme. For example, a victim who is defamed as a “subversive” will be identified with the worst images of subversion, such as espionage, terrorism and treason. An offender defamed as a “pervert” will be identified with the worst images of perversion, including child molestation and rape. An offender defamed as a “racist” or“anti-Semite” will be identified with the worst images of racism or hatred of Jews, such as lynchings or gas chambers.
- 7. To be maximally successful, a ritual defamation must bring pressure and humiliation on the offender from every quarter, including family and friends. If the offender has schoolchildren, they may be taunted and ridiculed as a consequence of adverse publicity. If the offender is employed they may be ostracized or fired from their job. If the offender belongs to clubs or associations, other members maybe urged to expel them.
- 8. Ritual defamation is highly symbolic and emotional and is designed to largely bypass rational cognitive processes. In its modern form it is a relatively sophisticated method of focusing hatred through skillful (albeit unprincipled) manipulation of symbols, prejudices and ideas.
- 9. Any explanation the offender may offer, including the claim of being wronged or misunderstood, is considered irrelevant. To claim truth as a defense for a politically incorrect value, opinion or belief is interpreted as defiance and only compounds the problem. Ritual defamation, it must be emphasized, is not necessarily an issue of being wrong or incorrect about a matter, but rather of “insensitivity” and failing to observe social taboos.
An interesting aspect of ritual defamation as a practice is its universality. It is not specific to any value, opinion or belief or to any group or subculture. It may be used against any political, ethnic, national or religious group. It may, for example, be used by anti-Semites against Jews, or by Jews against anti-Semites; by right-wingers against left-wingers, or vice-versa, and so on.
The power of ritual defamation lies entirely in its capacity to intimidate and terrorize through the use of stigmatization. It embraces some elements of primitive superstitious behavior, as in placing a “curse” or “hex” upon selected victims. It results in the tainting, labeling or marking of a person as "impure," somehow less than human and as an outcast. It is a tool often used against rebels and dissenters. In totalitarian societies it is a primary means of control.
A literary example of ritual defamation is Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, where a young woman was forced to wear a large “A” on her clothing to indicate that she had committed adultery. A historical example might be the witch hunts that occurred in colonial America. A more modern example might be the McCarthy period of the 1950’s, where both Communist and non-Communist leftists were charged with disloyalty and subversion, and recent crusades for “political correctness” in American society have produced a large number of victims unfairly linked to ideas or beliefs they do not hold.
Ritual defamation plays into the subconscious fear most people have of being shunned, abandoned or rejected by the tribe or community and its accompanying psychological support systems. For some victims the experience can be terrifying. Only the strongest psyches can survive it undamaged.
The weakness of ritual defamation lies in its tendency toward overkill and in its obvious maliciousness. More analytical or reflective citizens might perceive it as bullying, harassment or mere cruelty. Occasionally a ritual defamation will fail because of poor planning and failure to correctly judge the vulnerability of the offender, or because its unprincipled viciousness generates sympathy for them.
It is important to recognize and identify the patterns of a ritual defamation. Like virtually all propaganda and disinformation campaigns it is accomplished primarily through the manipulation of meaning and the use of words and symbols that characterize, identify and stigmatize. It is not used to persuade an opponent or to promote an opposing viewpoint but to inflict public punishment and humiliation. Dr. Edward Manner, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, observes that “stigmatization is one of the most oppressive, inhumane forms of punishment any group of human beings can inflict on one of its members.” He notes that it is “a form of social control a civilized society will use rarely, and only with the greatest of care.”