Stephen Lynam says that while it is naïve to to enter the world of politics and expect civility, toning down the insults would be a a step in the right direction.
LAST year was another bruising political year. Both at home and abroad, insults flew, tempers flared, and common decency seemed to be forgotten.
I was in America for the mid-term elections there and was struck by the unkindness and the vitriol that came from the mouths of voters and candidates, aimed at their fellow human beings.
Insulter-in-chief, of course, was US president Donald Trump, who labelled his former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as “dumb as a rock”, his accuser Stormy Daniels, with whom he is in a legal dispute, as “horseface”, and said that Stacey Abrams, running for the governorship of Georgia, wanted to turn the state “into Venezuela”, a country currently suffering a major
It was not just the president who showed an inability to be kind. Abrams’ opponent, the incumbent governor Brian Kemp, ran a campaign ad in which he sits in the back of a huge SUV and says: “‘I’ve got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself.”
One can only imagine how immigrants and their children felt upon seeing that on their TV screens.
Similarly Rob Desantis, while running for governor of Florida, called on people not to “monkey this up” by voting for Andrew Gillum, his black opponent.
Days later, a white supremacist group phoned many voters, urging them to vote for Desantis, describing Gillum as a “monkey” and a “negro”. Incumbent New Jersey congressman Leonard Lance said his opponent, Tom Malinowski, who suggested detainees at Guantanamo should receive due process, had “lobbied for terrorist rights”.
For the record, Abrams and Gillum lost, albeit narrowly, while Malinowski won. To dwell on that, however, is to miss the point. While losing with honour is not a particularly satisfying consolation prize — ask Hillary Clinton — to win while forgetting one’s own duty to lead by example leads to bad governance and a broken system.
Voters who reward unkindness through the ballot box are also failing to show younger people — the next generation of electors — that there can be a better way.
Unkindness, of course, begets unkindness. In the midst of a bitter Senate contest in Texas, Ted Cruz’s challenger Beto O’Rourke — in an otherwise positive, uplifting campaign and after much provocation — repeated Trump’s childish “Lyin’ Ted” moniker against him before admitting he should not have done so. Last summer, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Walters called on her followers to “confront” and “harass” members of the Trump cabinet if they spotted them in public.
It led to a rebuke from Nanci Pelosi, her boss, who eloquently — and kindly — said that “we must strive to make America beautiful again.
Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable. As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.”
We should not think that we are immune to this ugliness in Ireland.
The campaign by Peter Casey for the Presidency unleashed almost daily unkindnesses. His comments against the Traveller community received much attention, and probably won him a few votes.
Just as unkind were his various personal attacks on the President during the course of the RTÉ radio debate on October 13, when he said Michael D Higgins “will be lucky in a few years if he even does a walk around the park”, adding that “it’s not his fault he’s 77”.
These comments stood in stark contrast to those of the eventual winner.
Voters, too, have an important role to play here. It would take a Herculean effort to chronicle the insulting, unkind messages that politicians receive from some of the electorate via social media, but the abuse received by Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers is particularly noteworthy.
He has been called a number of other expletives by those who opposed his views on abortion.
While such words have been used to describe most politicians on social media, Mr Chambers’ experience was eye-catching because it happened within days of his election as the youngest member of the new Dáil at the age of just 25.
Nobody, regardless of their political positions, should have to endure such abuse and it would be naïve to think his experience has not discouraged many young people from a life of public service. We get the politicians we deserve, it is said, and treating an elected person — a human being like you and I — in this way will only make politics a less hospitable place for people to participate.
There are steps all of us, politicians and voters, an take to stem the unkind tide. The first is to think carefully about what we say prior to saying it, weighing up if it is kind, if it is fair and if it is necessary.
The second is to apologise if we ever fail to live up to the standards of public discourse to which we should aspire — things are often said in the heat of the moment and there is no shame or weakness in simply saying sorry. Mr Casey might dwell on that one.
The third, perhaps more contentious, way to change things for the better is for those individuals who routinely insult others, be they whole groups or individuals, to be removed from the discourse altogether, even if only temporarily.
Imagine if all the media groups in America refused to cover the Trump agenda until he changed his ways and refrained from the verbal atrocities that have become his trademark. Imagine if, following Mr Casey’s personalised insults aimed at the President, he was asked to leave that radio debate, or received no subsequent coverage of the remarks?
The new year is a time for resolutions and we could do worse than take a leaf from the book of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern who in 2018 made world headlines for, er, having a baby and who said that she was “proudly an empathetic, compassionately-driven politician” and remarked that “we teach kindness and empathy to our children, but then somehow, when it comes to political leadership want a complete absence of that”.
Unkindness in politics in nothing new, but the virulence of invective is reaching new lows. In 2019, we should take a step back, and ask if we are proud of ourselves. If not, I might quote again Ms Ardern, and kindly suggest that we “chart a different path”.
Stephen Lynam is a former special advisor to the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe.