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May 20, 2011

A seemingly ever-increasing number of people appear to be disenfranchised with politics and, in particular, with politicians themselves. They are seen by many to be self-serving, untrustworthy and double-dealing, and it is not uncommon to hear people ask "What did we do to deserve this?"


It is unfortunate, then, that they never seem to look for an answer.
One only has to think briefly (and honestly) to see that our society and media have developed many bizarre habits and ideas which actually promote lies from our politicians, and keep the honest ones down. I doubt that I have thought of every example, but I will try to cover as much as I can in a short space of text.
The first example seems innocent on the surface, but the more it is examined the more mind-boggling it becomes: Demanding apologies for offensive comments. Imagine that a politician made a racist comment that went public. In the next few days, if that politician valued his or her career, they would make a painfully clinical public apology where they "regretted the incident", "meant no offense" and "now realised that their comment might be taken the wrong way". After this, they might take a back-seat for a while, avoid the public eye for a few months, then continue business as usual.
Fair enough, right?
Well... no. Actually most of us realise that this apology is almost always an act. Sometimes people do slip up and say something they genuinely didn't mean, or have their words taken out of context, but most of the time that someone makes a blatantly racist/sexist/homophobic/generally offensive comment, it is because that they actually feel that way about the issue. If a politician casually suggests that black people aren't as capable as white people, or that it is irresponsible of women to pursue intensive careers unless they plan on never having children, then that comment probably betrays a genuine belief. A politician can apologise, but will that change their belief? No. Even if they are "sorry" about offending a particular race, they will still hold racist views, but now they have simply learnt to keep it quiet, resurfacing only to silently influence their policies and preventing a real debate on the issue. How many of our politicians are secretly racist, or homophobic or sexist? We will never know, because we have decided that those opinions are off-limits. If we were only more open about these views, we could question why a particular politician holds a particular view, instead of simply looking down on them. This might help us to better understand the causes of bigotry and hopefully even convince a few politicians, through open and reasoned debate, to change their views.
Which brings me onto my next example: Politicians who change their opinion are mocked as hypocritical or two-faced. 
I don't know about you, but I don't know everything. Sometimes I form an opinion without having access to some important evidence, or a particularly insightful viewpoint. When those are revealed, my opinion might be changed. For example, as a young teenager I was a strong supporter of the death penalty. Over time, as I gained more knowledge and experience, my view began to change, and about 6 years later I now strongly oppose it. This is a fairly natural development, and one that everyone goes through. No one comes out of the womb with a cemented set of beliefs. In fact in the average person the ability to adapt one's opinion to accept new and different (sometimes opposing) ideas is actually commended by our society as showing "open-mindedness".
So why does that same society demonise those attributes when they are present in a politician? Politicians who oppose drug-use are demanded to explain why they used drugs as a teenager, and those who supported a war before it began, only to demand its end after it turned foul, are sneered at as inconsistent. Is it not possible that a politician could adapt their views in the exact same way as the rest of us? Is it not possible that they came across a previously unheard convincing argument, or had an inspiring experience that genuinely changed their belief? I am reminded here of Malcolm X, who as many of you will know spent much of his later life as an advocate (some say founder) of the principles of Black Power, even going so far as to promote segregation of the races. What you may not know is that by the end of his life (that is, prior to his assassination) Malcolm X had changed his opinion to a more accommodating one which welcomed the support of like-minded white people. The reason for this change was his experiences while undertaking his Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, where he met Muslims of all races who supported the Civil Rights Movement.
This is just one example of an experience genuinely changing a public figure's opinion on an issue they feel strongly about.
In a similar vein, a politician is also mocked for not having an answer to everything. When is the last time you heard a politician in a public debate or Q&A session asking for time to research an issue before making a final decision on it, or taking a break to consider a new idea that had been proposed to them that they had not thought about before? If you are anything like me, it will have been a while. These actions are seen to display a lack of forethought and prompt comments like "he doesn't know what he's talking about". But in actuality, by mocking politicians who genuinely consider new ideas and the potential of changing their mind, we are breeding a generation of closed-minded, adamant and unflinchingly stubborn politicians who will never back down, because pursuing an incorrect idea is more readily accepted than having malleable policies.
It doesn't help that our media laps this up. Even my favourite pundits and journalists are guilty of demanding a "yes or no" answer every once in a while, not allowing any middle ground or explanation. When this tactic is employed, it usually means the difference between taking an extreme stance or directly contradicting a previous statement. Imagine, if you will, that an animal lover is in a televised debate and has just claimed to view animals and human beings as complete equals. That animal lover is then asked by the presenter whether they would rather have a viewer's child die than a rat, and demanded to say "Yes or no". They have three choices: Either say "Yes, I would rather have the child die" and lose all support for taking an extremist stance, say "No, I would rather have the rat die" and be mocked for inconsistency, or refuse to answer yes or no, and appear to be avoiding the issue, in which case each viewer will probably assume the worst (using the logic "if they aren't thinking something horrible, why not answer properly?"). As you can tell, not a single one of these choices ends well. 
This sort of thing happens to politicians every other day. Some of them deserve it. Others, probably not. But it is not a case of whether or not individuals deserve this treatment, but the acknowledgement of our own part in creating a layer of lies around our politicians. The only way for a politician to truly succeed in our society is by saying the right things, avoiding saying the wrong things (no matter how true those things might be), seeming confident and having all the answers. It is easy to criticise, but deep down almost all politicians actually do want to change their nation for the better (or what they see as for the better), and if they have to lie to do that, then they might say it is a small price to pay.
So next time you shake your head and tut at a politician for lying, and you won't have to wait for long, try to be a little more understanding. As is the case with everything in life, the actions and beliefs of individuals are the direct result of their environment, upbringing, experiences and the influences of society, education and the media, and it is utterly unrealistic for use to expect honesty when we have fashioned and maintained a system that forbids it.
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Posted: May 20, 2011 3:35pm

 

 
 
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Joel Hunt
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