Character assassination is a timeless cross-cultural phenomenon. It has been observed by historians as an instrument of social influence, propaganda, and coercion for centuries. In Ancient Rome, the greatest orator Marcus Tullius Cicero was a master of political invective. In 63 BCE, he delivered the First Catilinarian Oration against his fellow senator and political rival, Catiline, who was forced to flee Rome. In the Principate, unpopular emperors were condemned posthumously in damnatio memoriae rituals and described in scathing terms by ancient historians. In the Middle Ages, ambitious family members used character assassination to dethrone youthful monarchs by criticizing their immaturity as morally suspect. In 1517, Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in Germany became the battleground for the defenders of the Catholic Church and the proponents of the new theology of Wittenberg. Luther and his followers attacked their rivals using the range of media created by the print revolution via ridicule, satire and slander. In July 1789 in France, pre-revolutionary pamphlets targeting the reputation of Marie-Antoinette resurfaced after the liberation of the Bastille. They fueled negative public attitudes against the wicked queen pursuing her to the guillotine. In the United States, nineteenth-century politicians used newspapers to unleash their fury on their opponents. For example, the enemies of American president Abraham Lincoln used to spread wild rumors and fabrications about his character and personal life. Although character attacks date back to ancient times, it was not until the 1950s that social scientists began to make sense of the many well-known cases. As a subject of scholarship, character assassination was originally discussed by American activist and sociologist Jerome Davis in his collection of essays on the dangers of ethnic and political smear campaigns. Unfortunately, his arguments never translated into a social theory debate. In an age of clickbait media, character assassination is widespread in conversations online. Negative political campaigns lure newscasters and their audiences. Popular television shows are now socially approved exercises in personal mockery and ridicule that often reinforce negative public stereotypes. All of this demonstrates a need for a scientifically sound guide to studying character assassination as a social phenomenon in order to understand emergent forms of mediated reality such as online misinformation and “cancel culture.” This special issue continues the discussion from multiple perspectives embedded in social theory.
This special issue takes a compelling step toward an advanced reconceptualization of character assassination as a new line of research in the social sciences. In this issue, William L. Benoit (University of Alabama at Birmingham) and Kevin Stein (Southern Utah University) apply the Theory of Persuasive Attack by focusing on new categories related to the character of the accused. Amy Schumacher-Rutherford and Ashley Muddiman (University of Kansas) analyze the effects of verbal character attacks in the context of political speech at a generic American university. Tyler Johnson (University of Oklahoma) investigates accusations that parts of the Washington, DC, bureaucracy belong to a “deep state.” Daniel Rothbart (George Mason University) makes a cogent argument that character assassination is not always a deliberate effort to degrade someone. In cases of systemic character assassination (SCA), character attacks are often incorporated into the social-political order in ways that rationalize the dominance of the governing elites. Svetlana Stephenson (London Metropolitan University) examines moral campaigns that were intended to mobilize members of the community to expose collective representations of right and wrong. Building on Durkheimian and neo-Durkheimian approaches to ritual, Garfinkel’s outline of the theory of public degradation ceremonies, and Zizek’s account of split law, she explores the situational dynamics of disciplinary prorabotka meetings in the USSR. Rachel A. Smith and Rosa A. Eberly (The Pennsylvania State University) examine the intersection of character assassination and stigma communication scholarship to provide insight into why and how people engage in character assassination and/or stigmatization. Solon Simmons (George Mason University) develops a novel approach, called the root narrative profile, for the study of ideological data and moral politics. Sergei Samoilenko (George Mason University) uses structuration theory to explain character assassination as a means of both domination and subversion. Finally, James M. Jasper (the City University of New York) reviews the Routledge Handbook of Character Assassination and Reputation Management which puts character assassination on the intellectual map through diverse and thought-provoking essays studying character assassination as “an aspect of reality that has previously been out of sight.”