The long struggle to unlearn ableism may have an unexpected side benefit. It could help us make today’s politics and public discourse a little less toxic.
American politics were never as friendly as we like to think they once were. But they have felt particularly nasty for quite a few years now – that’s not just our imaginations. Most of us have a vaguely-defined but strong and understandable desire to “go back” to a kinder, less tense and corrosive dialog with our neighbors and fellow citizens – in person, on social media, and especially in politics.
How do we achieve civility when real issues divide us? Our conflicts are more than just rudeness and pointless rivalry, although we have more than enough of those, too. Real grievances need airing, and real injustices cry out for accountability. Does civility mean compromising on our own or other people’s humanity and worth? Should human rights be open to debate? Is bipartisan harmony really better, if we simply agree on who will remain oppressed and precisely how much? When the stakes of political argument are real and life-altering, harmony and bipartisanship for their own sakes seem a little less important.
Still, we aren’t wrong to crave a bit more mutual respect and a more chill atmosphere in politics. The trick is figuring out how to get there without simplistic difference-splitting or unilateral surrender. How do we make our politics more polite and respectful, while still standing firm for our beliefs and working on real solutions to our difficult problems?
One way we might start rebuilding respect without backing down on substance is to give up one specific and popular rhetorical style. We might stop calling our political opponents “stupid” and “crazy.” It seems like a small thing. But we might find that kicking the habit of insulting people based on intelligence and sanity is a remarkably low-cost way to lower the temperature of politics, and turn us away from petty name-calling so we can focus on the conflicts that really matter.
It’s not just about banning two words, “stupid” and “crazy.” It’s about weaning ourselves off the entire approach of criticizing opposing political views by calling those who hold them unintelligent or irrational. It’s taking care to stop calling people “idiots,” “morons,” and “dummies” – or calling them “nuts,” “certifiable,” and “insane.”
It’s what most of us seem to do when we are so frustrated by “the other side” that we can’t even describe exactly what’s wrong. We slap a label of “stupidity” or “insanity” on it, and rely on deeply ingrained, fundamentally ableist contempt and fear to do our arguing for us. We know it’s not the most noble form of debate. But it’s so common and, frankly, often so emotionally satisfying that giving up the practice won’t be easy. We will need good reasons to give up this easy and seductive brand of name-calling.
First of all, it really is ableist. “Stupid,” “crazy,” and their equivalents may or may not insult a particular disabled person in any given situation. But these terms always support the core ableist assumption that intellectual impairments and mental illnesses are inherently bad and invalidating. We use intelligence and rationality this way in political arguments because of the widespread belief, or maybe just a habit of thinking, that intellectually disabled and mentally ill people don’t have ideas worth listening to – that they are worthless and dismissible. If those ableist assumptions really weren’t there, the words wouldn’t have the same power and effect, and we wouldn’t be so in love with using them against our political foes.
But these insults and labels aren’t just offensive to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with mental illness. And they aren’t just harmful in the way they uphold ableist assumptions about people with those disabilities. Labels and insults based on intelligence and mental illness also add more pointless rancor and incivility to our politics and public discourse. These kinds of insults further foul our already hateful political discourse this without any compensating benefit to anyone, including those of us who use them.
They make political conflicts personal, distracting us from real issues and ideas of consequence.
They aren’t in the least persuasive or helpful to better understanding, because they short circuit real discussion of substantive issues.
Instead of helping us explore the outlines and contours of our disagreements, they signal superiority, contempt, and dismissal.
Using mental illness diagnoses for political and ideological purposes also has a dark history, including in Soviet Russia where political dissidents were often branded as “mentally ill” and detained, based partly on the idea that only an “insane” person could disagree with approved doctrines.
Meanwhile, calling actual cruel, bigoted, violent people – and both extreme anarchists and authoritarians too –“insane” or “stupid” lets them off lightly. It also distracts us from more serious and specific problems like racism and other forms of bigotry, and from political violence which brings literal harm and suffering, and threatens the core of democracy itself. It’s much easier to call racists and terrorists “idiots” and “lunatics” than to contend with the deeper things that actually drive their thinking and actions.
Over several decades, intelligence and mental illness insults, both explicit and implied, have also fueled two of the key narratives of our current political divide:
First there is the perceived conflict and unbridgeable cultural gulf between “elite” liberals who think conservatives are ignorant, unintelligent, or mentally ill, and “heartland” Americans who feel disparaged and looked down upon by “costal, liberal elites.” Like all stereotypes, these are often exaggerated. But judging by rhetoric alone, at least some of the Left’s contempt for the Right really does seem based on perceptions of intelligence and sanity.
It’s a theme heard loudly and explicitly in pretty much every speech at a Trump rally, and further illustrated by numerous stories on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. And it’s a narrative heavily reinforced from both Left and Right through whole sectors of popular culture, from music to comic books, and from movies and TV shows to comedy acts and beer commercials.
Then there is a kind of mirror version of this conflict, in which a certain strain of conservative or libertarian believes themselves to be the smart ones, grounded in a more logical, objective, and honest form of intelligence and rationality that overly emotional, hopelessly indoctrinated liberals lack. They don’t believe that they just happen to be smarter and more rational than liberals. A particular type of intelligence and rationality is at the heart of their own perceived political identity, as is the supposed “stupidity” and “irrationality” of their opponents.
This is most notable in the niche popularity of “rational” or “skeptical” communities on social media and especially YouTube, much of which in the last several years has moved to the Right politically and is driven by contempt for “social justice warriors” of the Left. Again, their core argument is that they are smart and rational, while left-wing “Social Justice Warriors” are “dumb” and “illogical.”
In both cases, intelligence and rationality are championed as the ultimate validations, while stupidity and insanity are the ultimate put-downs. Roughly speaking, “both sides” really do seem to do it, though it’s rarely an even match. The point is that there seems to be a broad consensus across the political spectrum that it’s both a fact and a strong argument to call your political opponents “stupid” or “nuts.”
This specific brand of rhetoric is just one of many factors fueling incivility. Giving it up won’t solve everything. But it is a factor, and moving away from it may be one of the easiest ways to foster a better political atmosphere, because it doesn’t involve any real concessions from anyone.
By at least trying to move to less ableist rhetoric, we may find that we are contributing to civility. If we stop insisting that we are smarter, mentally healthier, or fundamentally better people than our opponents, it won’t undo our substantive conflicts. But it could remove part of what makes our natural divisions wider: contempt for the other, and the feeling that the other holds us in contempt.
Unlike other changes and trade offs, this one should be relatively easy, or at least simple. We really can stop calling our political opponents “stupid” or “crazy,” or any words for judging intelligence and sanity. Instead, we can refocus on criticizing ideas, actions, and arguments, with evidence and compelling counter-arguments.
It won’t end ableism, and it won’t create total harmony in politics. But it could reduce the sum total tonnage of both ableism and political rancor in everyday life. It seems worth a try on both counts.
Malaysia's Political Woes Worsen as Key Party Leaves Ruling Bloc – BNN
(Bloomberg) — Malaysia’s largest political party said it is retracting support for the ruling coalition shortly after one of its lawmakers resigned as a minister, putting the administration of embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in a limbo.
Shamsul Anuar Nasarah, a member of the United Malays National Organisation, resigned as the nation’s energy minister Tuesday, shortly before a briefing by UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi urging Muhyiddin yet again to step down.
Muhyiddin has faced calls to resign in recent days after the status of emergency laws led to a rare rebuke from the monarch. The ruler clarified on Thursday that the ordinances remained in force — contrary to what a government minister told parliament earlier — and that he wished for them to be debated and annulled in the legislative assembly.
UMNO has presented enough letters to the king from its lawmakers declaring withdrawal of support for Muhyiddin, Ahmad Zahid added, without revealing their names. The current administration has lost its majority and Muhyiddin “must take responsibility for the failure under his leadership,” he said.
Ahmad Zahid was flanked by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan, former Trade Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and former Deputy Finance Minister Ahmad Maslan.
UMNO’s support has been key to Muhyiddin maintaining the razor-thin majority he cobbled together to emerge as prime minister last year. Malaysia’s deputy minister, health minister, and vaccine coordinating minister are among the party’s members.
“Up until last week the government had only 114 seats, and now with the withdrawal of nine more MPs, Muhyiddin has at most 105,” said Wong Chin Huat, a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University in Malaysia. “If he cannot reverse the loss of majority, his number is going to shrink to two digits in days, if not hours, to come. More UMNO parliamentarians may follow.”
READ: How the Pandemic Is Keeping Malaysia’s Politics Messy: QuickTake
The ruling coalition has the support of more than 110 MPs, Deputy Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said in a statement last week. There are 220 members in the lower house of parliament.
The announcement came hours after Muhyiddin said the government plans to debate and annul the emergency laws in parliament next month, as he sought to end the rift between the government and the nation’s king over the matter.
The motion, to be taken up at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, may help resolve disputes related to the repeal of the emergency ordinance in a “harmonious and constitutional manner,” he said in a statement.
Muhyiddin has struggled to shore up support for his government since taking power in March last year, facing constant demands from coalition partners and threats of defections. In January he cited the pandemic to impose a state of emergency. Yet, infections have since more than tripled, while confirmed cases breached the one million mark late July.
READ: Malaysian Opposition MPs March to Parliament, Demand PM Quit
On July 8, UMNO withdrew support for Muhyiddin over his administration’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, and called for a new leader to take over until fresh elections can be held.
“Will an alternative majority emerge? If there is, the new PM should immediately convene the Parliament to table a motion of confidence in itself, to confirm his power and stabilise politics,” Wong said. “If an alternative majority fails to emerge, the power struggle may drag on. Muhyiddin may stay on or strive to stay on as the minority PM.”
(Adds analyst comment in seventh, final paragraphs)
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.
Politics Briefing: Pallister apologizes for remarks on Canadian history, reconciliation – The Globe and Mail
This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.
BREAKING – Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is apologizing for remarks on reconciliation that have caused a cabinet resignation and other turmoil in his province.
“I feel awful about the reaction and the misunderstanding I created with my comments,” the Progressive Conservative Premier told a news conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday.
“I am going to issue a statement later today, ask for forgiveness and understanding and ask that we unite,” he said.
In July, Mr. Pallister criticized protesters who had toppled statues of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria on the grounds of the legislature, then made remarks that have been widely criticized,
“The people who came here to this country before it was a country, and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything,” Mr. Pallister said. “They came here to build.”
With his earlier statement, Mr. Pallister said he was trying to unite people to build “as our Indigenous people have done for millennia, as our Metis population has done, as our more recent immigrants have done.”
On reflection, Mr. Pallister said he understood he was misunderstood. “I apologize for that. I should have been clearer in my comments, but my heart was in the right place and so that’s why I am offering this statement of apology today, and asking for people’s understanding. Let’s move forward.”
The Premier’s comments were criticized by Indigenous leaders for downplaying the impact of colonialism. Indigenous and Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke quit her cabinet post, saying she and other cabinet ministers had not been listened to. Some caucus members have distanced themselves from Mr. Pallister’s remarks. Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman urged Mr. Pallister to apologize.
Also, Alan Lagimodiere, named as a replacement for Ms. Clarke, defended some intentions behind residential schools, and was called out on the spot by Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew. Mr. Lagimodiere later apologized.
“Alan is a fine man,” Mr. Pallister said Tuesday, noting he immediately apologized. “I stand by him.”
Asked directly if he was thinking of resigning, Mr. Pallister said, to the journalist who asked, “You’ll be among the first to know if that’s the decision.”
MUSICAL CALL FOR MICHAEL’S RELEASE – The former bandmates of the Hungarian punk band that Michael Kovrig founded in 1996 have put out a song calling on all governments involved to work toward the release of Mr. Kovrig and Michael Spavor, both arrested in China in December, 2018. The two men were taken into custody soon after the detention in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. Justice Department extradition request.
SCORES IN REFUGEE CAMP DESPITE CANADIAN PLEDGES – Three years after Canada promised to find permanent homes for hundreds of rescue workers and their family members who were evacuated from Syria during its civil war, dozens of adults and children remain stuck in a Middle East refugee camp where their mental and physical health is deteriorating, according to federal officials.
CONCERNS RAISED ABOUT RACIAL PROFILING – Two organizations representing academics of Chinese origin in Canada are warning that new mandatory national security assessments for federal funding of university research could lead to “racial profiling Chinese researchers as foreign agents.”
DEFENCE CHIEF NOTES CHRONICLE FORTIN TURMOIL – An extraordinary set of handwritten notes by Canada’s acting defence chief appear to reveal a behind-the-scenes struggle between due process, political optics and support for the complainant after a sexual misconduct allegation emerged against Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin.
VOICES FROM MICHIGAN ON LINE 5 – The Globe and Mail’s U.S. Correspondent Adrian Morrow visits the Straits of Mackinac in Michigan to talk to residents about discontent relating to Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which has the United States and Canada at odds. Story here.
WERNICK HAS WRITTEN GOVERNING GUIDE – Former top federal civil servant Michael Wernick says he has written a non-fiction book drawn from his more than three decades of experience in Ottawa, including time spent in cabinet rooms with ministers and prime ministers. Governing Canada: A Guide to the Tradecraft of Politics, is a “modest contribution” to Canada’s political literature, intended give people who are studying Canadian government, or those generally interested in it, another resource, says Mr. Wernick.
MCLACHLIN REUPS WITH HONG-KONG COURT – Despite Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, has agreed to serve another three-year term as a foreign judge on Hong Kong’s highest court. Story here. From The Montreal Gazette.
THE LOOMING ELECTION
-The Hill Times suggests here that Liberal candidates, and campaign managers are preparing for an election campaign to get started on Aug. 8 or Aug. 15, with the election date set to be Sept. 13 or Sept. 20.
-Federal political parties say they hope to hold lively in-person campaign rallies if an election is called – but, with pandemic restrictions still in place, they acknowledge that the events won’t look the same as they have in the past. Story here.
Writing in Maclean’s, Philippe J. Fourner says the Liberals are intent on an election despite data suggesting the likely outcome would be a Liberal-led minority government – and not a majority -“Because [they] could potentially secure a majority and may not have another window to do so in the foreseeable future.” Story here.
PRIME MINISTER’S DAY
“Personal” according to the advisory issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet visits the riding of Salaberry—Suroîtand Châteauguay—Lacolle
Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole – No schedule provided by Mr. O’Toole’s office.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul – No schedule provided by Ms. Paul’s office.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh celebrates the 60th anniversary of the NDP, and holds a media availability.
André Picard (The Globe and Mail) on whether you need to worry about breakthrough COVID-19 infections after getting vaccinated?: “Don’t be duped by the “news” that infections and hospitalizations are up among the vaccinated. Of course they are. A lot of people are getting vaccinated. But, relatively, way fewer vaccinated people are ending up sick or in hospital and, here, relativity matters. The pandemic has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Kluane Adamek (Contributor to The Globe and Mail) on why Canada should Indigenize the Senate: “Transforming the Senate to truly reflect and include a majority Indigenous representation would be a significant gesture toward reconciliation. It would have natural legitimacy as a custodial body safeguarding the land and all peoples. In using his discretion to establish this new convention, Mr. Trudeau would set Canada on a new and more equitable constitutional path. “Indigenizing” the Senate could be among the Prime Minister’s most consequential legacies.”
Andrew MacDougall (The Ottawa Citizen) on how little (or how much) Justin Trudeau talks about Erin O’Toole during the pending election campaign will be a sign of the Liberal leader’s confidence: “The Opposition Leader will rail about how much Trudeau has burdened the country with debt. He’ll moan about how Trudeau has loaded families up with extra costs. And he’ll no doubt remind Canadians of how Trudeau has let the country down with his various ethical lapses, whether that be WE, SNC, or blackface (times three). And what can Mr. O’Toole expect to hear back from Justin Trudeau? Well, if the Prime Minister is confident about his prospects, very little. Very little at all. If the Liberals are liking their chances they’ll go back to “sunny ways” and once again promote the power of positivity.”
Send along your political questions and we will look at getting answers to run in this newsletter. It’s not possible to answer each one personally. Questions and answers will be edited for length and clarity.
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