I’m going to keep this short, because it is a very simple idea. This one falls into the category of “things you should not need anyone to tell you.”
You should not “denounce” anyone, ever. You should not “repudiate” anyone, ever. That is a hard rule. It applies to your hated political rivals. It applies to the American Association of Puppy-Kickers and Baby-Stabbers. It applies to the Nazis.
You definitely should not demand that someone else “denounce” or “repudiate” anyone. If you do so, you are doing something terrible and you should feel terrible about it.
If you see a person demanding a denunciation/repudiation…
…or, worse yet, getting mad at someone for not spontaneously providing a denunciation/repudiation…
…or, worst of all, insinuating that a failure to denounce/repudiate carries important implications about someone’s thoughts, beliefs, or likely future courses of action…
…you should stop trusting that person.
Denunciation is a practice that combines, and weaponizes, many of the most terrible failure modes of human moral reasoning. That goes triple for trying to elicit a denunciation from someone else.
Affect heuristic thinking? Check. “Based on a single statement or event, we want you to decide whether someone is Generally Bad-and-Wrong, and should be henceforth associated with all other Bad-and-Wrong Stuff on every axis.”
Ritual purity thinking? Check. “You are close enough to this other person/group that you have been tainted by its foulness, and now the taint will creep forth to cover you in foulness too! The only solution is to cast rhetorical spells, to issue statements that don’t actually say anything but that emphasize your separation from the uncleanness.”
Dominance power / might-makes-right? Super check. For the denouncer himself: “I am in a position of privilege and importance, so I can un-associate myself with this Bad Thing by pushing the association onto a despised inferior who will be the public scapegoat.” For the person demanding a denunciation: “Here’s a question. There are only two answers, yes and no: any attempt at anything else (including nuance or clarification) will just look like weaseling and be worse than either. If you say no and refuse to denounce, we will use affect heuristic thinking and ritual purity thinking to make everyone hate you. If you say yes and denounce, the people you’re denouncing will hate you. We can make you do this, because we’re big and strong and lots of people support our ability to make arbitrary rhetorical demands.” Christ, this is the same sort of trick that fourth-grade bullies love to use.
And, of course, the denunciation dynamic ensures that disagreements will be maximally irreconcilable and maximally harmful on a personal level. If you’re unlucky enough to be the black sheep of the moment — if everyone has to take a big public stand against you, or else be tainted with your impure status — then you’re going to be cut off from everyone very quickly, rendering your entire life terrible, and it becomes impossible for you to start making steps towards compromise.
In its pure form, this is a claim about people. Also maybe about groups of people. But not about ideas. If there is a contentious proposition at issue, it’s obviously legit to ask “do you agree with the proposition or not?”
But even there, you want to avoid setting things up such that anything other than a straight “yes” or “no” looks like weaseling. Not letting people express complex layered thoughts is a good way to have a stupid and simplistic discourse.
And you really want to avoid asking people to agree-or-disagree with content-free non-propositions that are solely designed to trigger affect heuristic thinking. “Is John McCain really a war hero?” Why on earth would you ever ask that? McCain’s war-relevant actions are all matters of public record, and sitting around opining on the meaning of “war hero” is a semantic game unworthy of college freshmen. The whole thing devolves to “do you want to add to John McCain’s Bad-and-Wrong-ness or to his Good-and-Right-ness?,” which in turn is just a cue for McCain-supporters and McCain-haters to transfer some of that affect heuristic to you. This is the opposite of reasoned debate.
If you see those things going on, you should be wary, in much the same way that you should be wary of denunciations.
At some point, if you want the discourse to improve — if you want the world of ideas, and the political world, to be less full of gross stupidities and injustices — you’re going to have to put down weapons that could conceivably be used to further your own aims. Because there are a lot of weapons available, and a lot of them run on stupidity and injustice.
Ritualized performative hate is pretty much the worst of those weapons. I’m willing to say that we should maybe try dropping it first.
It is bad. Baaaaad. Baaaa-aaaaa-aaaaa…