There is a Time for Name-calling
Name calling provides some valuable emotional release, but in a political discussion it’s about as constructive as emptying your kitchen garbage in your opponent’s lap. I want to stick to a tone that will advance my arguments and find areas of consensus, but there is a problem. Some political tactics just do not yield to sober reasoning. To grant them the same respect you bring to a principled disagreement is to demean the political process. Sometimes, in order to protect the process, you have to call “Nutjob!”
The last fifteen years or so seems to have been marked by a rise in what I call, for lack of an official term, The Wackiness Factor in politics. It could be driven by the spread of new media, or perhaps by the rise of fundamentalism, or I could be dreaming it up. But I can’t recall there being so much goofiness in general political circulation in my early years.
Conventional wisdom dictates that you respond to The Wackiness Factor with some combination of aloofness and condescending tolerance. But sometimes it doesn’t work. Some political figures or noisemakers just demand a separate vocabulary.
Here’s an example:
Imagine a televised debate between two political candidates. Candidate A accuses Candidate B of participating with the Chinese Communists and their Gay Martian Overlords in a secret conspiracy to surrender our planet to the aliens for use as a giant, intergalactic disco. Candidate A demands that Candidate B provide proof that he did not, as alleged in many weblogs, covertly meet with Chinese and Martian agents (who are gay and perhaps even atheist) while on his April trip to Hawaii.
Candidate B is presented with an interesting dilemma. Naturally, he has no proof that he did not meet said agents, homosexual, atheist or otherwise. What’s more, anyone concerned about this allegation would not likely be swayed by a statement from a Hawaiian sailboard instructor that Candidate B was on the water that day. Candidate B is forced to rely on the public to recognize the absurdity of the claim and hope that the allegation hurts Candidate A more than it does him.
Here’s where it gets interesting – what does Candidate B do when people actually take the claim seriously? There is a tacit rule in our political system that one candidate is not allowed to call “nutjob” on the other. We also don’t allow the media to do that. No matter how daffy a candidate or his claims are, the rules on objectivity preclude the news media from doing more than reporting the claim, and pointing out the lack of evidence.
This creates a fascinating gap in which politicians can operate, particularly as it relates to claims they don’t personally state, but cultivate through their proxies. The Nutjob Gambit has become a common tool in the political arsenal, with some unpredictable and potentially frightening ramifications. Rational people living out their lives inside the ‘reality-based community’ need to be prepared to call ‘nutjob’ when necessary. Otherwise we should prepare for a still greater rise in the Whackiness Factor.