The Character Assassination Project
“Bang!” A headline
delivers a fatal blow to a public career of yet another public figure. Never
mind all his hard work. Never mind her accomplishments. Everything will be
shattered in a rapidly spreading fire of accusations, semi-truths, and
innuendo. A political candidate suddenly becomes a “crook”. A prominent
scientist turns into a notorious womanizer. A female political candidate
appears as an eerie “witch”.
In modern politics as well in historical times, character attacks abound. They have broken numerous reputations. So far, however, there has hardly been any systematic research devoted to this phenomenon. How does character assassination work? When and why do character ‘assassins’ decide to deploy their fatal weapons of facts and fiction? Why do people fall so easily when they are under character attack?
When we asked our international colleagues to join us and discuss character assassination from a closer range, their response was more than enthusiastic. We gathered the first international seminar on character assassination in Heidelberg, Germany. Fifteen scholars from eleven countries and several academic disciplines debated the “art of smear and defamation in history and today”. The results of the discussion have exceeded our expectations. In our forthcoming publications, we want to present these results to a wider academic audience.
Character assassination is a deliberate damage of an individual’s reputation. Most notable victims of character assassination are political leaders, officials, celebrities, scientists, athletes and other public figures. “Character assassins” target private lives, behavior, values, and identity of their victims. The biographical details of victims are altered or fabricated. Intimate features become public. Achievements are questioned. Good intentions are doubted. Using exaggerations, mockery, allegations, lies, insinuations, and slander, the attackers try to hurt their victims morally and emotionally in the eyes of public opinion.
To give some examples from recent American history, political opponents of U.S. President Richard Nixon commonly and deliberately portrayed him as a reclusive, paranoid, and aloof conspirator. Ronald Reagan was an ignorant cowboy, warmonger, or absent-minded old man. Bill Clinton’s opponents scorned him as a slick Willy, womanizer and liar. George W. Bush was stupid. Barack Obama repeatedly appeared in sarcastic attacks as a messiah or a lecturing professor unable to govern.
Character assassination is not limited to modern democracies. In fact, it is as old as human civilization. Throughout history, people of all ranks, occupations, and persuasions have employed character attacks against their opponents. In the dying days of the Roman Republic, Octavian and Mark Antony engaged in a fierce propaganda war, painting each other as a usurping social upstart and a debauched slave of “oriental” vices, respectively. The Renaissance popes were viciously attacked by Protestant reformers, who issued countless pamphlets portraying them as decadent, corrupt, and in league with demonic forces. Numerous historical examples show that character assassination has often been a very effective weapon to win political battles, discredit unwelcome religious views, or settle personal scores. On the one hand, time, individuals, and circumstances change but the key methods of character assassination remain amazingly consistent. On the other hand, attacks are constantly refined and enhanced. Their speed and scope grow. Due to the rise of modern democracies and mass media, character attacks now reach a global audience in minutes.
Describing character assassination we also use the term character attacks as assaults aimed at a particular individual with the intention to damage his or her good reputation. They include spoken remarks, written statements, jokes, cartoons, and many other forms of verbal and non-verbal expression. Character attacks can target a person’s allegiance, trustworthiness, family background, ethnicity, sexual behavior and any other aspect of his or her personality. The primary aim is to influence the way in which others perceive this individual in a negative way. If the attacks succeed in destroying this person’s reputation, we speak of character assassination.
Character attacks and character assassination are forms of defamation, with the distinct feature that they target individuals (as opposed to companies, ethnic groups, political parties, etc.). They are akin to the argumentum ad hominem, a rhetorical strategy, which concerns the undermining of an opponent’s credibility, but contrary to the ad hominem, character attacks do not have to take place in the context of a debate.
Many character attacks aim to remove an opponent from the field of competition, or to weaken his or her position in favor of another one. They can also aim to hurt the cause for which the victim stands. In some cases, attackers create a scapegoat to channel the public’s negative emotions. In others, they appeal to moral values by portraying their victims as sinful and corrupt. Yet in others, they settle personal scores.
Society creates certain standards for appropriate behavior and establishes a set of important individual features called character. Although these standards differ from culture to culture, and may not even be agreed upon within a culture, they impose strong limitations on what one can and cannot do and say. As history shows, figures occupying important positions in the public sphere, such as political leaders, have to ostensibly adhere to general behavioral standards and mainstream values. It is important for them to maintain a good reputation in the eyes of the general public or the relevant parts of it. If they fail to do so, they may lose the necessary support and will not be able to keep their position in the long term.
We are gathering cases and insights from the fields of history, political science and psychology to track several universal characteristics of character assassination as well as to describe many of their unique features over different times and places. We claim that character assassination is a timeless, cross-cultural phenomenon that reveals itself in a variety of forms and methods typical for every cultural, political, and technological epoch.
Defining aspects of character attacks and assassinations
The following aspects are crucial in defining character attacks and character assassination:
Intentionality: Character attacks can only be counted as such if the attacker is deliberately attempting to damage the victim’s reputation. If the damage is accidental (for instance caused by a thoughtless remark), this does not constitute character attack. It should be stressed that the attackers seldom acknowledge their aims and methods publicly, preferring to frame them as legitimate criticisms. However, there is some historical evidence and sufficient anecdotal evidence that “character assassins” often brag about their intentions and methods within their in-groups (one of the authors has been engaged as a consultant in political campaigning in Washington DC).
Public nature: Since character attacks are concerned with reputation, they are by definition public in nature. Their victims are figures with a high public profile, such as politicians, religious leaders, leading academics or celebrities. It appears that there are no “secret” character assassinations, although sometimes the mere threat to go public with some potentially damaging information may suffice to get rid of a rival who may resign, for example, or drop out of a political campaign.
Perception: The victim’s reputation is damaged when the audience sees it this way. Therefore, it does not matter whether the allegations are true or false, exaggerated or not. The audience thus becomes an inseparable element of character assassination. Studies in political psychology provide interesting materials about the attackers’ changing strategies in relation to the audience’s beliefs, values, and expectations. Cross-cultural psychology also supplies valuable facts about cultural norms affecting perceptions of moral and immoral behavior.
We argue that these and some other social, political and psychological aspects of character assassination are not absolute categories. They are fluid. In our work and publications, we will critically reflect on the concept of character assassination and how it can be employed to examine personal attacks against individuals from many different angles and in a wide variety of cultural contexts.
An edited volume is expected to be published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan (New York).
The 2011 seminar, Character Assassination: the Art of Defamation throughout the Ages, took place in Heidelberg, Germany, July 21-23, 2011.
Also learn more about future events planned by The International Society for the Study of Character Assassination (ISSCA):
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