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April 12th 2011 print

James Allan

Debating with devils

Allan Labor at the national level may well think that demonising Mr. Abbott is good politics. But having started down that road, they can’t complain when the tables are turned and similar tactics used by the Coalition. The rest of us, though, would be better off without all this demonising and imputing of bad faith.

Demonising those who disagree

Do you recall a few years back when slogans about ‘BushHitler’ were all the rage in certain quarters and various Hollywood types were saying their country was so despicable they’d soon be moving abroad, even, gasp, to Canada? Do you remember all the demonstrators’ posters calling Bush’s Vice-President Cheney a war criminal and equating the US government to terrorists?

Or what about some of the reactions to then President Bush’s post 9-11 counter-terrorism response, the talk of the wickedness of Guatanamo Bay and the raw evil of waterboarding?

Or again, who remembers the concerted efforts by the Democrats to upend President Bush’s agenda on every front going, to block his judicial appointments, to filibuster and more?

I don’t ask these questions just to show up the hypocrisy of some of President Obama’s supporters (and indeed the President himself) who since his election in 2008 have been trying to convince people how unhelpful and destructive it is for Republicans and the Tea Party crowd to be demonising the Democrats and the current President as unreconstructed socialists aiming to remake the US government in the image of some latter day East Germany.

Yes, it is hypocritical to throw stones when you used to be a stone thrower yourself, and now dwell in an upmarket glass house. But put that aside. You see I ask these questions because I have some sympathy with calls not to demonise one’s political opponents and not to assume their motives are wicked and that they are either ignorant, in need of re-education, or downright evil. To start, it’s almost always false as a matter of fact. People disagree not because one side is pure, upright, and with a special pipeline to God while the other is nefarious, malign and aiming for terrible things for everyone save themselves.

Whether it be as regards health care, how to deal with suspected terrorists, whether to opt for a Keynesian stimulus, or any other big issue confronting the American – or Australian – government, people overwhelmingly disagree simply because they differ on how to go about improving society. Smart, reasonable, nice people differ on all these issues because they have a different take on the best means to achieve some end.

That leads on to another reason for avoiding demonising those who disagree with you. Painting them as wicked or bone ignorant tends to prevent you from weighing up what they have to say and considering if aspects of it might improve your own position. You get stuck in a whirl of hearing only from like-minded people and miss the chance to bolster your own platform and maybe even gather in more of those still undecided.

So I have a lot of sympathy, as I said, for President Obama’s plea for a bit less demonising. It’s just that it rankles coming from him and from the Democrats.

You see the main flaw in the President’s plea is that before the last election he was one of the demonisers-in-chief. He had one of the most partisan voting records during his time as a Senator. He voted against confirming both Justice Alito and Chief Justice Roberts to the Supreme Court. Indeed, one of the keys to his election win was painting President Bush and the Republicans, sotto voce when not done explicitly, as nasty and fired by impure motives.

Plenty of other Democrats did the same. And therein lies the problem. You can’t really expect your opponents to refrain from demonising you when you yourself were earlier demonising them. That’s asking just a bit too much of us humans.

Sure, this may all have bad public policy consequences. And it may make compromise tough, maybe impossible in some circumstances. It may even push us towards a sort of vicious circle of recriminations and unbending polarisation of positions.

But almost all of us have a built-in hankering for reciprocity, come what may. So rather than debate the new President’s policies on counter-terrorism and assume they are motivated by good intentions, the temptation is to point out that Obama is killing suspects with drone missiles where Bush was waterboarding them, and then ask why the former is morally better. The temptation is to scream that reading a would-be airplane bomber his Miranda rights is not only misguided, it’s evil and triggered by a hatred of one’s own country.

Or on health care, instead of having a debate about means to reform a bloated system – one that even before the reform was passed was the third highest government spending one per capita in the world and it only covered the old and the poor – you get demonising and claims about Obama’s desire to take over this and every other aspect of economic life in the country. Not true, sure, but hardly any more misleading than earlier Democrat and Obama claims.

It’s obvious things are a lot more complicated than the bumper sticker moralising of the late Bush years when you look and see that Obama has yet to find any way to close Guantanamo (though his friends in the press ignore this in a way they never would with Bush), that he has no idea how to try psychotic suicide bombers (a regular trial in New York city was soon jettisoned when people began realising the consequences), and that in the real world it is highly implausible to really think that strong arm interrogation tactics never work (making any claims that say they are immoral and ineffective a sort of trite and cowardly having your cake and eating it too exercise beloved by undergraduates).

My point is that it’s plain out other worldly to expect your opponents to hold themselves to a higher standard than you did yourself. And when one side succeeds by polarising debates and painting their opponents as evil and morally deficient, the tactic will be used in due course by the other side. And then complaints just become hollow and self-serving.

It seems to me that the same sort of trajectory is visible here in Australia. Labor at the national level may well think that demonising Mr. Abbott is good politics. But having started down that road, they can’t complain when the tables are turned and similar tactics used by the Coalition.

The rest of us, though, would be better off without all this demonising and imputing of bad faith.