In today’s public square, just how far away is “the other side”?
A few years ago, I was asked to moderate the first in what was then planned as a series of “difficult conversations” on my campus. The topic was gay marriage. Expert speakers were chosen to represent both sides of the issue, and all parties agreed in advance to a format that turned out to work surprisingly well. As the speakers were delivering their opening, time-limited remarks, I received written questions from the assembly, gathered them into topical categories, and then addressed them alternately to one side or the other. Direct comments or statements from the audience were strictly prohibited. After the question period each speaker gave a closing comment of no more than two minutes, and we adjourned.
In preparing my opening comments, I had to think long and hard about just what we were trying to accomplish. It was a “conversation” and not a “debate”; we were not trying to determine a winning and a losing side. Since many in the room were spending more time than they ever had with a large group of people whose opinions were sharply at variance with their own, we could not reasonably hope to change any minds, one way or the other. What then was the point?
In trying to describe it I invented a rather barbaric neologism: de-demonization. We were seeking to transform the way in which some had come to regard those who disagreed with them. The hoped-for “outcome” of the conversation was simple to state: By the end of the evening we would all be brought to renounce any tendencies to demonize those with whom we disagreed.
At the time this goal seemed quite modest, even perhaps unnecessary. Were there really a lot of people at the university who regarded their opponents as demonic? Actually, there were more than one might think, since a few at least believed that what they perceived as willful sexual perversions were the work of the devil. And some who were defending gay marriage believed that their opponents were not just mistaken but malevolent. Even so, very few in the audience of 150 or so actually thought of their adversaries as demonic; at that time, the ideas of demonization and de-demonization were as much a figure of speech as they were designations of perceived reality.
Not so today. In a November 2020 Pew poll, roughly 40% of Republicans described the QAnon conspiracy theory as “good for the country,” and the number of Americans who believe the theory has dramatically increased since then. The theory maintains that many elite Democrats are part of a satanic cult that deals in child sex trafficking. However accurate these fluctuating poll results may be, there can be no doubt that political demonology is a growing fact of American life. Many US citizens have gone from demonizing their opponents (i.e., describing their opponents’ views as evil, not simply mistaken) to asserting that their opponents are actually possessed by Satan.
So, now more than ever, we need to practice the art of de-demonization through conversation and other communal practices. Do such practices work, and how will we know if they do?
I believe that the process we used on my campus did work, and I have anecdotal evidence for this. After the more formal conversation about gay marriage concluded, many informal conversations continued in the assembly hall and outside of it. One such conversation included a group of students and faculty from a very conservative seminary a couple of hours away and several of our own students from the LGBTQ community. The folks I later talked to from both groups claimed that they had been heard, that they had disabused those on “the other side” from some false assumptions, and that although they still disagreed, they had actually come to like at least some of the people who disagreed with them.
I had never thought of disciplined conversation as a figurative form of exorcism, accomplished through a casting out of the demon in ourselves that tempts us to demonize others, but now I do. And we now desperately need a lot of it.
Mark Schwehn is Senior Research Professor in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University, and editor of the second edition of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be.