Supporters of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law have dusted off the vintage lie that gay men, trans folks, and their allies are child molesters.
The word of the day is “grooming.”
Much has been written about how dangerous this rhetoric is to LGBTQ communities (see John Stoehr’s interview with Gabriel Rosenberg), but the threat extends further. Republicans have opened a new front against political opponents, insinuating or downright alleging that all Democrats and even dissenting Republicans are pedophiles.
This rhetoric crosses the line from spirited debate to eliminationist rhetoric. Falsely labeling one’s political enemies as pedophiles is a tacit incitement to harassment and even to violence. If the campaign is waged from huge media platforms over a sustained period of time, as we’re seeing now, it crosses the line into stochastic terrorism.
Actual grooming is a form of manipulation.
Abusers ingratiate themselves into the victim’s life and wear down their defenses so they submit to sexual abuse. Proponents of these anti-gay bills claim that teaching kids about sex and gender is the same as grooming them for abuse, if not child abuse in itself. That’s preposterous, as are allegations that supporting a trans child’s identity or providing gender-affirming medical care is child abuse.
The rightwing is cynically collapsing the distinction between sexually abusing children, teaching ideas they falsely claim make children vulnerable and supporting the teaching of these ideas, thus exposing a large segment of the population to reprisals for alleged pedophilia.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of four 8-year-old children,” wrote Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw on Twitter.
US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene proclaimed “the Democrats are the party of pedophiles,” adding that "either you are pro-pedophile and pro-transgender biological men or you defend children and women.”
Greene’s comments might be the ravings of a crank if not for the rightwing uniting behind her. The moral panic over child porn extends from the lowliest 8chan poster to the halls of the United States Senate.
A bizarre conspiracy theory alleging that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was soft on child porn became the centerpiece of GOP objections to her confirmation. Greene accused three senators of her own party of being “pro-pedophile” for voting to confirm Judge Jackson.
Not to be outdone, Tucker Carlson told viewers the Walt Disney Corporation was behaving like a sex offender by including gay characters in its movies and for belatedly opposing “Don’t Say Gay.”
This strategy of equating political opponents with child molesters and pedophiles in order to legitimize violence against them may be more recognizable when seen in a totalitarian regime overseas.
When protests erupted against the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian state media responded by branding the organizers of the demonstrations as “political pedophiles,” whom they baselessly allege to be sexually exploiting young activists who joined their cause.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin famously equates homosexuality and pedophilia with the west. In his speech outlining his motives for invading Ukraine, Putin claimed he was invading in part to stop the west from imposing values “contrary to human nature” on Ukraine.
The term eliminationism was coined by political scientist Daniel Goldhagen in his 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners to describe the kinds of rhetoric used to utterly dehumanize a segment of society and mark them for forcible exclusion, expulsion or even elimination.
More recently, journalist and scholar Dave Neiwert has written extensively on eliminationist themes in US right-wing rhetoric.
Eliminationist rhetoric asserts that a group of people is so depraved and debased that coexistence is impossible. The group is thought to be a menace that must be crushed, expelled or otherwise eliminated.
At its core, eliminationist rhetoric is tacit permission for violence. That is exactly what branding your political opponents as pedophiles does.
“Pedo” is eliminationist rhetoric. It’s the logical bridge that explains why people who claim to be the biggest proponents of democracy and freedom don’t want democracy or freedom for Democrats.
Allegedly, we’re too depraved to engage in normal politics.
We must be crushed, literally.
These spurious allegations can also be viewed as a form of stochastic terrorism that involves a group with a big media platform picking a target, blaming them for a social ill and flooding the zone with inflammatory rhetoric until the target is inundated with harassment.
A stochastic terrorist need not intend their demagoguery to end in violence. It is enough for such violence to be reasonably foreseeable.
Who can say whether disgraced former Fox host Bill O’Reilly wanted someone to shoot Dr. George Tiller by he incessantly calling the Wichita, Kansas, abortion provider a “baby killer”? Maybe O’Reilly’s intent was simply to scare Tiller or drive him out of the abortion business, but the fact remains that someone did assassinate him.
Stochastic terrorism unfolds in predictable phases:
A group with a mass communication platform sets out to demonize a person or a group of people as the cause of a major social ill whether it’s child sexual abuse, a global pandemic or an electoral defeat.
The target is repeatedly and falsely labeled as deviant, criminal, diseased and dangerous. The target may be called pedophiles, psychotics, drug addicts, Nazis, communists and murderers.
The despised group is frequently described as dirty, diseased or even as vermin that must be exterminated for the health of the body politic.
The audience comes to think of the target as subhuman. At this point, it becomes easier to imagine violence as acceptable and necessary.
If these messages are disseminated widely enough, it’s virtually guaranteed the target will be harassed and threatened. And, in a country awash with guns and angry people, there’s a non-trivial chance that someone will eventually attack the target.
The certainty of harassment and the possibility of violence can easily drive the target out of public life, ruin political careers and terrorize families. When the target complains or law enforcement begins asking questions, the stochastic terrorist can deny all responsibility.
After all, they didn’t tell their followers to harass abortion providers, Jews, trans kids, public health officials or female tech journalists.
After all, they just blamed these groups for major social ills and implied that they are too debased and dangerous to be engaged with politically, and normalized violent rhetoric about them.
Legally, they have a point.
Morally, we all know the score.
Moral panics over pedophilia can escalate into real-world harassment and violence. In 2016, an assailant fired a gun into the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, a beloved family restaurant in Washington, DC. He believed the restaurant was the center of a child sex trafficking plot.
This so-called Pizzagate conspiracy, a forerunner of QAnon, grew out of baseless online speculation about Hillary Clinton campaign emails hacked by Russian spies and dumped onto the internet.
As a result of the conspiracy, the owner of Comet Ping Pong was deluged with death threats even before the shooting incident.
Extremists protest outside his restaurant to this day.
The concerted Republican attempt to label enemies as pedophiles is a disgusting and dangerous display of homophobia and transphobia, but the threat extends to all of their political enemies.
They are trying to construe anyone opposing their agenda, whether by supporting gay kids, voting for the wrong Supreme Court nominee or even watching a Disney movie with their family, as a pedophile.
This is stochastic terrorism by a major political party.