Thursday, 8 November 2012

Hosing down political discourse

Janus ... pic: AP

There's no kind way to say this, so I'll just come out with it:

some of you are annoying me.

I was brought up reasonably properly, and I was taught not to say anything if I didn't have anything nice to say. So, I'm not trying to insult anyone (even if that's a by-product), I'm just trying to explain why I may appear to be mounting some kind of attack when I firmly believe that being mean is never nice.

Those who know me know I strive to be even-handed, and I hate an argument. Mrs G is now able to humorously recount my response to her mounting restlessness and frustration during the final weeks of pregnancy with our eldest minion, which was “would you like me to find you someone to fight?” I. Don’t. Do. Confrontation.

So the last couple of days of widespread fascination with, and commentary on, the US Presidential elections have completely gotten up my nose. It wouldn’t have made any difference which way the result went, this is pretty much the post I would’ve been writing.

It is de rigeur to portray one’s political foes as the ultimate evil to ever slither out of a pestilential pit. As a rhetorical device, this approach most certainly has its uses, as long as people recognise that the foe isn’t, in actual fact, the spawn of Satan.

What’s disturbing me is the way that partisans seem to whole-heartedly believe the worst of their opponents. The rhetoric appears to be swallowed as fact.

I was monitoring two US news websites as the election results rolled in yesterday, Fox News and CBS. As it became clear that Ohio was going to Obama, clinching the last electoral votes necessary for victory, the live comments feed on Fox quickly turned apocalyptic: “There goes the US”; “This is the end”; “How can people be so stupid?”. And so on and so forth. There appeared to be actual belief that Obama’s re-election signalled the end of civilisation as we know it.

This post is in no way intended to excuse the comments of those who are obviously and irretrievably stupid, but I do wonder about otherwise intelligent people blindly following a partisan mob which parades caricature as received wisdom. I’ve also noted people either thanking their relevant deity that the US didn’t elect Romney, because he’s a Mormon/Plutocrat/Woman-hater/War-monger, or sagely observing that, due to those characteristics, Americans would never have been so stupid as to elect such a person anyway, so the outcome was pre-ordained.

I need to make three points about this stuff, because I’m finding it hard to believe that people really mean what they’ve been saying: 1) people aren’t caricatures; 2) political leaders are actually less likely to be suspect than their rank and file; and 3) the political centre is crowded, and believing outlandish things to get angry about is a bit silly.

Firstly, people aren’t caricatures, by which I mean you can’t define a person by the dot-points on their CV. For example, why shouldn’t a Mormon be President? Purely on the basis of religious belief, why would “President Romney” be any more ludicrous a concept than “President Kennedy”? Catholics have some pretty weird beliefs too, but today nobody seriously thinks JFK let the stranger parts of Catholicism interfere with his Presidential responsibilities. When it comes down to it, doesn’t a leader’s commitment to clearly articulated values give you more assurance than less? The popular meme pointing out to Republicans threatening to emigrate to Australia that our Prime Minister is a female, unmarried atheist (below) should not be a discouragement to anyone, because it shouldn't be relevant to a political discussion.

Yes, it’s funny, but there are people out there who would actually put it on a placard and wait at the airport for the first American to arrive, in an effort to drive them away. That's crazy-talk, and deeply unfunny.

It’s not that I think I know any better who would be a better leader. Oh no, I’m no oracle. My problem is that basing a political decision on a plainly two-dimensional picture makes you look silly, and I’d like to think better of you. It’s like saying you won’t sit next to Sally ‘cos she’s got red hair. Yeah, but she got an A in maths, so her appearance is irrelevant to your opportunity to learn something by sitting next to her.

Secondly, those who have moved amongst politicians at any level know that there is a proportion that are in it for whatever they can get out of it, and there is a proportion who truly try to apply a philosophy as they strive for the good of society. Estimates vary as to those proportions, but my observation is that few of the avaricious type make it into leadership positions. It does happen, but not often, and there’s a good reason for this. The people who run political parties know that if there’s dirt to be dug it will be dug. Your leaders need to start with as clean a slate as possible, ensuring that whatever is discovered about a candidate is easily waved away as irrelevant or exaggerated. This path can end up with empty vessels at the lectern, but it rarely ends with idiots or demons smiling and waving at the cameras. Political leaders are often good people trying to do good things. If you’re a partisan, you’d agree that this is true of at least your side. Is it so hard to believe the same of the other side?

This is the context in which I look at elections, here and abroad. I don’t buy the “worst ever”, “people will die”, “let’s move country” response to a political outcome. Changes of government in a modern democracy are not seismic events. Which brings me to my third point.

Seriously, look at the narrow band of the political spectrum that our two major parties occupy. My theory is that political discourse has moved predominantly to the personal realm of late precisely because there’s so little of a policy nature left to differentiate one party from another.

I don’t believe that America “dodged a bullet” through not electing Mitt Romney as President, any more than I believe America just “drove off the cliff” by re-electing Barack Obama. Neither of these things are true, because both are gross exaggerations. There are serious issues separating the two, but there is broad agreement on many more issues.

There’s no need to demonise your opponents when you have so much common ground. It doesn’t make sense to alienate someone with whom you can achieve so much and negotiate the smaller number of issues on which you don’t agree.

However, this is unlikely to happen until we stop treating politics as entertainment, or sport. When we stop viewing social philosophy as a vicious contest in which the teams change sides at half time, we on the sidelines might stand a chance of recognising how much we have in common, instead of being one-eyed supporters spewing hate and taunting each other.

And how likely is that to happen? I’m a realist, so I accept that’s pretty unlikely.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it when people are mean, though.

Being mean isn’t nice.

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