Today we are going to learn the difference between condemning and disavowing, especially in the context of calls for condemnation/disavowing. Why? I don’t know; I just felt an inexplicable urge to write about it. It seems like an appropriate and relevant subject, for some reason.
To condemn, criticize, or disapprove something merely means to express, publicly, that you don’t like something. It could be anything: ideas, public works, a movie, how people dress, dogs, whatever.
The only thing that is asked of a critic is that he should make his point clear and explain why what he is condemning is wrong. Implicitly, although not necessarily, he should be able to put forth an alternative (doing nothing or the status quo may be a valid alternative.) Although nowadays is a job mostly left to screeching maniacs, public condemnation and criticism are, in fact, intellectual occupations.
Condemnation also has a more theatrical version. It’s the idea that, if something bad happens, and by “happens” I mean “the media talks about it,” if some public figure doesn’t condemn it immediately, he is implicitly supporting it. Sometimes, that can be true, but it just usually means that people are not calling for public condemnation but disavowals.
In societies where people’s discourses sound like Cro-Magnon grunts, you should suspect of every new strange term that suddenly appears and becomes popular. If the Social Media Commentariat, which uses a quite reduced thesaurus, starts to use expressions like “disavowing” you should know something fishy is going on.
Although it’s disguised as if it were a synonym, disavow, or to call for disavowals, has nothing to do with condemning, criticizing, denouncing, or censoring. As its etymology shows, the words literally means “to recant or repudiate a vow.” Synonyms of to disavow would be to forswear (the etymology is the same, but one is a Latin word, the other Germanic) renounce, or –if you feel D&Dish– abjure. A Politician condemning a terrorist attack is just performing a necessary public deed and stating the obvious: “Terrorism is bad. Don’t blow up schools, m’kay.”
Condemning can, and in fact usually is, something done from a position of power. The condemned object is, as the word implies, damned and humiliated. If the condemnation isn’t weak or fake, the criticized object is degraded.
To disavow something, on the other hand, almost always humiliates the one who does the disavowing (or is forced to) and elevates and empowers the one who demanded it. It’s an admission of moral impropriety and, in many cases, defeat. It’s an admission that you had “vowed” allegiance to (evil) people, behaviors, or beliefs that you are now renouncing (because you finally admit you consorted with EEEEEVIL.) You cannot disavow something you hadn’t supported before, and the use of the word implies you did. Basically, it’s the loyalty-test version of the “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” argument:
A) I condemn wife-beaters (OK! You’re cool)
B) I disavow wife-beaters (Ewww!)
(Of course, it could happen that wife-beaters are indeed your loyal followers, but you don’t need to disavow them either unless you had previously supported them (WTF dude.) Just condemn them and state the obvious –that what they do is wrong and you don’t like them. They’ll take the hint.)
Although calls for disavowals are usually disguised as mere calls for public condemnation (and the word being used may not even be “disavowing,”) that’s a pretense and a disguise. The fact that the petitioners don’t feel satisfied when the public figure issues the disapprovals means that they wanted something different – a groveling disavowing that would allow them to say “See! See how the guy was (and may still be) one of THEM!”
Now you know the difference, so go out and start demanding public disavowals of everything you dislike or hate.