Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Attack the policy, not the person

Jerry Stratton, June 19, 2009

We’ve been seeing a lot of people unnecessarily embarrassed in the news recently for some fairly egregious demeaning speech. “Accidentally” making a statutory rape joke? “Accidentally” hitting the wrong button in e-mail? There are accidents that happen for no one’s fault, and then there are accidents that happen because someone was playing too close to the ledge. There’s a pretty simple way to avoid these “accidents” and that is, criticize policy and make jokes about policy.

If you criticize the policy rather than the person, you won’t send out e-mails with “inadvertently” racist photos. You won’t make sexist jokes about Willow Palin or Michelle Obama. Not only isn’t that about policy, in the latter examples neither of them make policy. As far as I can tell Michelle Obama hasn’t articulated any policy for several months. When she starts talking up policy again, then it will make sense to discuss that policy. But if you “debate the policy” by making fun of the shoes she happened to wear while helping out at a food bank… you look awfully silly criticizing someone for personally helping a food bank.

And when you accidentally hit the wrong button in e-mail, or discover that more people than you knew are reading your Facebook page, you’ll have no reason to be ashamed that you disagree with someone‘s policy. Rather than that you don’t like their looks, think they resemble an animal typically used for racist stereotyping, or wonder if they look like a ghost in the dark.

If you attack policy rather than the person, you won’t cross the line into attacking a politician’s children. You won’t cross the line and claim that female bloggers need to be “hate-raped” for being conservative. You especially won’t cross the line into attacking a politician by demeaning their physical appearance.

What is the point in criticizing someone’s looks? I see this way too often on blogs and comment threads from all stripes. I don’t understand the hatred that some people have of Michelle Obama’s arms or Sarah Palin’s toenails. They’re both attractive people and it wouldn’t matter even if they weren’t. That’s not how you judge the worth of a person’s political ideas. I said the same thing in 1998 about Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno, two people who I strongly disagreed with even then.

And that’s another thing. We know that people disagree with us politically, but we often forget that they disagree with us aesthetically. So when we write about policy, we write a debate; when we write about looks, we assume everyone else thinks like we do. But they don’t, and that makes you look silly. I wrote last election about how the Firefighter’s union here in California appeared to be so blinded by partisanship that they didn’t realize they were sending out an ad in favor of Schwarzenegger.

The same is true about dialect and accent. If you stick to policy, you won’t make the racist claim that immigrants shouldn’t get into politics—as was said about Schwarzenegger—or that rural folks shouldn’t get into politics—as was said about Bush and Palin. You may not realize that that’s what you’re saying when you criticize someone’s accent or politics, but the part of the country that shares that speech will recognize that it is what you mean.

Stick to policy, and you don’t have to worry about those mistakes.

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