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Character Assassination: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Eric Shiraev

George Mason University, USA

Any competition in social, professional, and political life often looks like a contest of words and images. To win in a political race or impress public opinion, people use symbols, labels, and colorful descriptions. Very often such descriptions are clear exaggerations and even distortions. They repeatedly aim not at other people’s actions but rather at their personalities. By attacking an individual’s personal life, facts of a biography, and specific individual features (which we will call them “character” for convenience) the attacker tries to hurt the victim politically, morally, socially, or psychologically and thus, depending on circumstances, remove him or her from a contest, sway public opinion, or achieve some other goal. We will call these attempts character assassination, which is a deliberate attempt to seriously damage the reputation, character, social status, or achievements of another person. The motivation for character assassination is typically rooted in the attackers’ (assassin’s) desire to harm the victim psychologically and reduce public support for the victim. This should ultimately devastate or even destroy his or her chances to succeed. In other cases, character assassination is conducted to hurt the cause that the victim symbolizes or defends.

More than fifty years ago, Jerome Davis in his classic book, ―Character Assassination tried to show that the attempts to smear someone’s reputation are rooted in crystal clear political motivations and count on the public’s “fear, ignorance, envy, suspicion, malice, jealousy, frustration, greed, aggression, economic rivalry, emotional insecurity and an inferiority complex” (Davis, 1950, p. 222). Mr Davis was on the defensive. He pursued his own political and personal goals trying to discredit other character “assassins” involved in deliberate campaign of lies and distortion against him. His book is rather a collection of essays about various smear tactics and is not necessarily a source that examines the goals, the means, or the mechanisms of character assassination. We attempt to continue the quest that Davis started almost sixty years ago.

Our preliminary research is an initial effort to compare various character assassination attempts that took place in history and in most recent times. We chose to select information coming from in various countries and related to different spheres of activities. At this stage, we focused primarily in politics but also paid attention to science and literature. We based our work on historic facts and a series of interviews with scientists, entrepreneurs, and former politicians (which will be included in the second part of this study). This paper presents an initial attempt to apply several theories of political science, political communication, and political psychology to the study of character assassination. We wanted to know more about why character attacks occur, which tactics are used, and their efficiency.

The article in its entirety can be found here: Character Assassination An Interdisciplinary Approach


The Crimes of Elagabalus

The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor

by Martijn Icks

Elagabalus is one of the most notorious of Rome’s ‘bad emperors’: a sexually-depraved and eccentric hedonist who in his short and riotous reign made unprecedented changes to Roman state religion and defied all taboos. An oriental boy-priest from Syria – aged just 14 when he was elevated to power in 218 CE – he placed the sun god Elagabal at the head of the established Roman pantheon, engaged in orgiastic rituals, took male and female lovers, wore feminine dress and prostituted himself in taverns and even inside the imperial palace. Since his assassination by Praetorian Guards at the age of 18, Elagabalus has been an object of fascination to historians and a source of inspiration for artists and writers. This immensely readable book examines the life of one of the Roman Empire’s most colourful figures, and charts the many guises of his legacy: from evil tyrant to firebrand rebel, from mystical androgyne to modern gay teenager, from decadent sensualist to ancient pop star.

A sample chapter can be read here: The Rejected Ruler


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