Thursday, 25 September 2014

Balls and Players

Dirty politics was the main reason I voted against the government at the election. I just didn't trust National to undo, dismantle or otherwise prevent the systematic corruption of our political processes. It seemed it'd be too hard to resist the temptation to keep using such a successful innovation. That view seems vindicated by Keith Ng's post, especially his links to the ratfuckers, and by Nicky Hager's commentary on the election.

This poses a problem for those of us opposed to dirty political methods. We might be assisted by various inquiries but that's a slim hope given the scope of executive power in New Zealand. So what can we do?

A recent post by Giovanni Tiso starts to explore some options for people who feel this way. My contribution here is about clearly defining what is and isn't a dirty ratfucking smear.

The easy answer is that personal attacks are bad, mkay? In sporting parlance, we should attack the ball (i.e. the issue), not the player. But applying this simple test is not so easy, because two types of error are quite easy to sell and the culpable are usually pretty good at selling misinformation.

  • False positives are when someone is wrongly accused of being a ratfucker. For example, it was common for National and its allies to describe Nicky Hager in these terms: he had orchestrated a smear campaign against the PM's integrity.
  • False negatives are when actual ratfuckers are wrongly defended. Thus, Mr Slater is just someone who runs his own ship, Jason Ede talks to lots of bloggers, and Paul Henry's casual racism is just "saying what everyone thinks".

The false negatives can be fought in a straightforward way - provided evidence is available - but the false positives raise an extra conceptual issue. Sometimes, personal integrity is actually the issue. This was obviously the case with Judith Collins, and many consider it also applies to the PM.

In these cases, how can we simultaneously argue that personal attacks are bad and that person X has no integrity and is unfit for office? I think there are two options.

  1. Avoid the point. Don't say: "person X lacks integrity and must be fired". Say: "these Y cases involve serious errors by person X which collectively show that X is ill-suited for their current role". 
  2. Refine the rules. When someone fails at their job, calling out that failure is a professional attack, not a personal one. For example, if the fullback is missing tackles we should say so, but her sexual preferences are irrelevant.  
The first of these involves a passive aggressive form of language that will be familiar to anyone who has made poor choices when employing others. It sounds slippery and disingenuous and gets close to Harry Frankfurt's definition of bullshit.

So I reckon we should continue to oppose personal attacks and be very clear about the distinction between personal and professional failures.

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