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NYU Philosopher Juliana Bidadanure Discusses Demonization at Harvard Divinity School Lecture

NYU philosophy professor Juliana U. Bidadanure gave a talk at the Harvard Divinity School Thursday.
NYU philosophy professor Juliana U. Bidadanure gave a talk at the Harvard Divinity School Thursday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Adina R. Lippman and Sheerea X. Yu, Contributing Writers

Juliana U. Bidadanure, professor of philosophy at New York University, presented her theory of demonization during a talk at the Harvard Divinity School Thursday, assessing its prevalence and impact on society.

The lecture, organized by Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, centered on Bidadanure’s ongoing research project called “Understanding Demonization.” During the talk, she touched upon how infantilization and demobilization bear upon the moral standing of citizens.

Bidadanure opened the talk by identifying examples of contemporary demonization, citing quotes on immigration from Eric J. L. Zemmour, a French politician, and President Donald J. Trump.

She highlighted how it is “typical for immigrants from the Global South to be depicted by media outlets, politicians, and citizens alike as bad people with malicious and destructive intentions” — observations that shaped her definition of modern demonization.

According to Bidadanure, there is an important distinction between demonization as a literal concept and how it manifests in contemporary society.

“Of course, literally, demonization is the representation of persons as demons,” Bidadanure said. “Contemporary demonization is often more secular in its explicit references, and the appeal to the supernatural is rare. The targets are typically portrayed rather as having immoral and destructive intentions and as being gravely deviant.”

Bidadanure noted that this type of demonization can even appear in secular contexts — such as in “the recent portrayal of Democrats by conspiracy theorists as smelling of sulfur.”

She described demonization as comprising two primary criteria: moral othering and moral panic. In the case of moral othering, a sharp contrast is drawn between the values of the in-group and an out-group.

“The demonized undergo sustained attacks on their moral character and are reduced to their alleged role dysfunctions,” Bidadanure said. “They are relegated to the status of moral wicked inferiors who threaten to undermine the core values the in-group community is alleged to hold dear.”

Bidadanure stressed that “with demonization, the attack is rarely about a particular action in a particular context.”

“It is a more sustained and permanent attack on the character and on people’s tendency to do bad things, not just for having done a bad thing,” Bidadanure said.

In the case of moral panic, she said, the out-group is presented as having the power to harm the in-group.

“The central image is that of a welfare state that is sinking under the weight of countless cheaters,” Bidadanure said. “The victim of this vice, again, would be a hard-working citizen, and the alleged practice of benefits scrounging is taken to weaken both our economic system and one of our deepest and most important values: the value of hard work.”

She considered, however, that sometimes demonization could be viewed as necessary or justified — for example, when individuals use demonizing language to describe a group that is oppressing them.

“What about cases of demonization of persons by virtue of their role, rather than their identity? So demonization of the police, let’s say,” Bidadanure said.

Bidadanure countered, however, that the ills of demonization should not be overlooked for the sake of social justice.

“I think that, given the account I’ve provided of demonization as moral othering and moral panic, I would want to say that demonization understood in that respect is always unjustified,” she said.

Ultimately, Bidadanure concluded that demonization is too dangerous to use as a rhetorical tool given its capacity to perpetuate discrimination.

“This moral aspect or moral othering is an incredibly effective mechanism to deny others their belonging in a community of equals,” Bidadanure said.

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Social Sciences DivisionHarvard Divinity SchoolEventsPhilosophy