Friday November 25, 2016

ENCORE: 'Assholes', jerks, and slanderers: the abuse of politicians

An angry troll.

An angry troll.

Listen 12:59

Politics the world over seems to be getting nastier.

This week, NDP MLA Sandra Jansen revealed some of the hateful messages she's received since crossing the floor from the Progressive Conservatives to the NDP, after leaving the PC leadership race.

An Ottawa man was convicted of criminal harassment and uttering threats after tweeting abusive messages at Conservative MP Michelle Rempel.

Of course, harassment and lies spread hot and quick on twitter during the United States presidential election, a column in the Irish Times notes that "Civilised political debate has given way to vicious abuse," and former Australian PM Julia Gillard warns that online abuse of politicians is keeping women from politics.

There is a range of abuse. On the extreme end, threats of rape. Often, it's a simmering current of vulgarity and aggressiveness, most often directed at women, but frequently thrown at male politicians as well.

What explains this apparent rise in the abusive language of politics? How did politics go from a boring topic of conversation to what seems like a spectator sport for outright jerks?

Maybe the problem isn't that politics has changed, but a certain kind of person is becoming more prominent in society. In the academic language of University of California, Irvine philosophy professor Aaron James, that person is The Asshole.

Assholes are everywhere: on the roads, at the supermarket, online, and in politics

James is the author of the 2012 book "Assholes: A Theory." It's an examination of the rise of a mentality and set of behaviours. Here's how James defines an asshole. 

It's mainly but not only men, who allows himself special advantages in life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. - Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theory

So these are the people who cut in line, who do dumb things in traffic, who yell at referees at the sports game, and so on. And when you tell these people 'hey, you're violating social norms' they don't care, because they feel they're entitled to because of a sense of superiority; they're richer or smarter or better than most people. 

Assholes: A Theory

Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James, attempts to define a certain kind of modern behaviour (Penguin Random House)

And James says this type of behaviour extends to politics. That includes politicians themselves, who may violate norms of social behaviour for their own benefit regardless of the harms to society, by political supporters who finger the TV cameras at a rally, or by some media and personalities who violate expected norms of journalistic responsibility for partisan reasons. 

James has a couple of ideas for the rise of this behaviour. It may be a product of a narcissistic age, one that prioritizes the self over community. It also may be a feature of capitalism itself. To work well, capitalism requires trust and the expectation that people will honour their obligations. Unfortunately, some people don't care about honouring their obligations, either financially or socially, and can find a way to enrich themselves by being, in the academic sense, an asshole.

They're a rage factory that runs on stoking people's fears, their anger, their sense of self righteousness. - Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theoy

James says this mentality has now spread to politics, as people see that a politican or partisan can be successful by violating expected social norms. And that includes saying things to politicians online that once would've been seen as utterly unacceptable.

Slander, libel, and the abuse of politicians in history

Of course, philosophy is not the only place we can look for answers. Vile and sinister harassment of politicians goes way back in time. Robert Darnton, Harvard historian and author of the book "The Devil in the Holy Water, or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon," says harassment has always been a part of politics, but there are times in history when harassment of politicians becomes more significant. 

"I think libel and slander have haunted history from the beginning. But there are indeed particular points when libels and slanderous gossip stand out. I think you could say they are a kind of noise that accompanies any particular system, but of course political systems have crises, and I've been able to locate particular crises when the flood of slanderous writing was especially powerful and nasty." 

Libel and slander have haunted history from the beginning. - Robert Danton, Harvard University

Darnton points to times like the Reformation, or the French Revolution, or the reign of Napoleon. And it has to be noted, this slanderous writing existed without the benefit of social media. He says it's fair to compare Facebook with the way slanderers would post satirical songs or sonnets in public. In one instance in Italy in the 16th century, during a dispute among Catholic cardinals, one writer named Pietro Aretino made his name by posting daily updates of his latest insults.

"Aretino posted sonnets, satirical sonnets that were really obscene, funny, outrageous... these poems appeared every day. I think Aretino became the great-grandfather of the libelists who came down the line ever since then."

Female politicians receive the nastiest abuse online today, and that seems to overlap with history. For example, one clearly false news story spread online by certain outlets during the United States election was a story that Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff engaged in occult rituals. In another story, The New York Times reported that a pizza restaurant was bombarded with threats following clearly false claims that Hillary Clinton used the shop as a site to molest children.

To Darnton, those stories overlap with stories from the past, especially of tales told about Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI and Queen of France during the revolution. 

Marie slander

Detail from a "libelle," pornographic propaganda popular during the French Revolution. This depicts Marie Antoinette in a lesbian relationship. Google "Hillary Clinton + Yoko Ono" for a contemporary analogue. (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France)

"I've looked up some of the reports and they are appalling. But they are not all that different from anecdotes that I have found in the 18th century. You know, there are limits to human creativity. So I hear echoes all the time when I read about slander today. Some of the things written about Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, you know, lesbianism, incest, sadism, anything imaginable was attributed to her. The themes appear everywhere. I don't think the nastiness that, regrettably, was aimed at Hillary Clinton, was fundamentally different from the nastiness aimed at Marie Antoinette." 

You know, there are limits to human creativity. So I hear echoes all the time when I read about slander today. - Robert Darnton, Harvard University

What does that say about harassment of politicians today? Of course, historians are loathe to make sweeping statements about human nature, but Darnton does say the issue requires attention.

"There are similarities. And one generalization that I think is valid is political systems going quite far back in time have had to cope with nasty, slanderous, sexual noises. A kind of background noise that can be mobilized and turned against certain members of the elite."

What can be done about the slanderers and 'assholes' in our midst?

Darnton mentioned the 'elite,' a phrase slung about with regularity during the US Presidential election, and a term that's appeared recently in the Conservative Party leadership race in Canada. The idea being that there's a stratification of society, that those at the top are disconnected from society, or those at the bottom feel ignored by the overlords.

To philosopher Aaron James, part of the remedy to the rise of the 'asshole' is to recreate social connections that reinforce co-operative behaviour. 

Even our small acts against the asshole really aren't just personal, they're part of what has to happen if democracy is going to survive. - Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theory

"We have to keep investing in the basic institutions, education, civic organizations like boys clubs and girls clubs, that encourage co-operative behaviour and public spiritedness, the family and such. We have to do what we can to reinforce these things, starting with our own relationships and our own families. At this point it's fair to say even our small acts against the asshole really aren't just personal, they're part of what has to happen if democracy is going to survive. The stakes now are really that high."