Sunday, November 21, 2004

Letting Fly - A Guide to The Ethics of Buttonholing Politicians

When I was out last night, people raised an interesting question: how should you behave if you met a democratically-elected politician whose policies you find to be abhorrent? It's no surprise that this was raised in the context of current politics, both here and globally. Still, the general question is far more interesting. So, put that issue aside and simply imagine whatever democratically elected political leader it is you find most abhorrent. Think of someone who leaves you wide-eyed and foaming at the mouth. Someone who seems to have no shame in parading their dishonesty and political-moral stupidity for all to see. Should you bawl them out or not?

For the sake of reflection, let's qualify this question:
1. Your rage should be policy-oriented. Merely thinking that X is a gobshite (there's a great Irish word for your delectation) is not enough. They actually need to be up to something that you can disagree with.
2. It is important that whoever you are thinking of can (plausibly) be held responsible for the policy that sent you into the outer regions of frenzied apoplexy. So, I'm not talking about raving at an American or Frenchman (delete as appropriate) because you associate them with their government's policies. Even if they did support those policies, blasting their faces with invective and spittle is just rude (unless they've already stamped on your sandcastle, in which case...).

You have two options: you can keep mum and talk about the weather, or you can grasp the rare opportunity to vent your spleen and let them have it.

I'm not sure I have a full answer to the question: I suspect that I'm in favour of a venting that stops short of the volcanic. Here are my thoughts so far:

1. How often do you get to have a go at an important person? The fact that this person is dreadful just adds virtue to the occasion. Politicians are very skilled at avoiding real people, so an opportunity to take some mendacious bastard to the verbal guillotine is too good to pass up. We have to listen to them all day, so I figure that it's pay-back time: you’d be failing in a very important way if you didn’t go for it.
2. It may be that, as a moral agent yourself, you are under an obligation to object to abhorrent behaviour when you have the opportunity. This obligation is both to yourself (what sort of person tolerates the behaviour of a despicable character because they thought it wasn't the done thing to let fly at them) and to society in general (surely an important aspect of our being as moral agents is our capacity to resist cruelty etc.).
3. Your verbal assault may, at the very least, be embarrassing for your victim. You’ll add to their sneaky suspicion that they can't preen and swagger in public without someone throwing (verbal) stones. And that looks bad on camera, don't you know.
Or rather, it looks bad for them...

That said...
1. What precisely is your moral intent? Informing someone that you disapprove of their bad behaviour cannot be motivated solely or largely by the wish to get it off your chest. That’s just self-indulgence. Are you looking to change their minds? Or to shift their attention to other matters that they seem to ignore?
2. The people I'm talking about are of course elected, generally by a majority of the populace. Now, while majority votes are not particularly good methods for resolving moral questions, we surely do have some duty of politeness to the degree that someone represents the general wishes of large numbers of people. The fact that we might not see them doing the same thing doesn't justify us excluding this issue from our moral reasoning.
3. On a related note, we should also think about the political consequences of our actions. If you denounce the politician because you don't like what they're up to, an element of your calculations should be based on how you can, in your own tiny way, chip away at that person's electoral position. You should shape your statement around greatest impact. It may well be that the greatest impact is achieved through a well-pitched comment, but it may also be that greatest impact is achieved (in terms of not doing any damage) by saying nothing. Moreover, you are, I guess, going to be a bit of a persona non grata with your victim once you've done the deed. I suspect that if you've been looking to get crumbs of their table for something else, a little diplomacy might be worth it. The Bono doctrine, if you like...

In short, if you did have the opportunity, it would probably be good to let fly, but you should temper your actions with a regard to your own reasons for doing so, with respect for the person's office and with an awareness of the effect you ultimately wish to have.

And remember, sometimes it's best to stick with throwing your slippers/shoes/children at the TV.

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