It's no surprise that a professor has written a piece that goes even further than the NIE in its assessment of the nuclear tameness of Iran. Cinnamon Stillwell reports that Dr. William O. Beeman, chair of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, says that Iran never had any nuclear weapons program at all.
Not a surprise, really. But what's of much greater interest to me is the fact that Beeman has written a book entitled, The Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. I haven't read the book, I must admit; it's the title that fascinates me.
It's no surprise that Beeman is an anthropologist. Now, anthropology happens to be one of my favorite disciplines; I minored in it in college. But anthropologists must take a stance towards other cultures that is a bit like the balancing act therapists must take towards clients: listening, learning, and keeping an open mind about other customs and their function.
This doesn't mean that, as people in private life, anthropologists can't or shouldn't make moral judgments about good and bad. The same is true of therapists. In fact, we all must do so in our private lives, in our relationships, and in our political decisions. But anthropologists (and therapists) often try to generalize their professional stance of acceptance and apply it to situations where to do so would be to create a dangerous moral vacuum.
I've previously described how this process often works for therapists. Anthropologists work on a larger scale: societies and cultures, rather than individuals and/or families.
When Beeman is criticizing the US and Iran for "demonizing" each other, he appears to be suggesting that it's the word that matters and is abhorrent, rather than the behavior of the countries involved. This is a classic example of the postmodernist emphasis on words rather than reality.
To take the analogy a few steps further into absurdity, one might as well write a book entitled, "How Hitler and the Jews Demonize Each Other." After all, Hitler called the Jews names, and the Jews call Hitler names, right? And name-calling is bad, right? Surely if we all came to the table with nicer words, we could all get along so much better…
And then there's "WWII: How the Axis and the Allies Demonized Each Other." Or perhaps, "How Blacks and the KKK Demonize Each Other."
That's probably enough; you get the idea.
Sometimes it's actually correct to "demonize" a person or a group that is actually acting somewhat—well, somewhat demonic. The word "demonize" is an interesting one, putting the locus of action in the person doing the criticizing ("He demonizes," "She demonizes," "They demonize…") rather than the person or people performing the acts that are criticized. Are those latter people doing something that should be be condemned? And if so, what's wrong with condemning it? And if those people then condemn the condemner, does that somehow make them both morally equal, and does it make both charges equally correct or equally incorrect?
Of course not. These are not well-matched siblings squabbling "He hit me first!" and being told to both go to their rooms. These are countries with a track record on rhetoric, human rights, and civil liberties, records that can and should be judged.
Reframes may be very helpful in therapy, to cast a more positive light on actions that the client has previously seen as negative, and to create room for helpful and constructive change. Unfortunately, nations are not people, nor are they or their leaders seeking therapy.
Would that some of them were.