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INCIVILITY AND VERBAL ATTACKS

Politicians behaving badly, trade insults but dine and wine together

The effects of insults in politics have long been used as a way to rally supporters

In Summary

• This week, we witnessed our own homegrown political incivility between Deputy President Ruto’s and Raila Odinga’s and handlers

• We often quote the old adage that ‘politics is a dirty game’. The game being an inanimate object cannot be dirty by itself.

Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga at the Kisumu International Airport on December 13, 2018
Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga at the Kisumu International Airport on December 13, 2018
Image: FAITH MATETE

Crooked Hillary; pencil neck Schiff; slimeball Comey; and fake news media. These are a few choice descriptions that US President Donald Trump uses to describe his antagonists.

Many have called him unpresidential for using such incivil language in public. But the jury is still out on whether President Trump is unpresidential or simply unconventional.

This week, we witnessed our own homegrown political incivility between Deputy President Ruto’s and Raila Odinga’s and handlers, ostensibly at the behest of their masters. Dragon, pathological liar, blackmailer, a thief with no remorse were the choice adjectives that ODM branded Ruto. In retaliation, Ruto’s handlers described Raila’s handlers as incoherent, juvenile, uneducated, unhinged and desperately delusional.

 

And in response, on one hand, part of the nation appeared mortified and horrified that people holding such high leadership positions would stoop so low to name calling in public; while on the other hand, their supporters joined in the fray of name calling each other. And predictably, the insults dam broke. The insults shifted from Raila and Ruto to their supporters, and it was a field day where any insult became permissible.

We often quote the old adage that ‘politics is a dirty game’. The game being an inanimate object cannot be dirty by itself. It is thus made dirty by its players. This was well articulated by William Shakespeare when he said ‘the fault is no in our stars, but in ourselves’. Therefore, if we have acknowledged and embraced this reality, why do we act shocked when politicians or their handlers behave badly?

But begs the question, are they really behaving badly or are they practising role morality? Role morality is the feeling that you have permission to harm others in ways that would be wrong if it weren’t for the role that you are playing. It is the tendency to use different moral standards for the different roles we play in society. It often involves people acting in ways that they would view as clearly unethical or immoral if they were acting on their own behalf, but because they are acting on behalf of their constituents, their employers or clients, they view their actions as permissible.

In a study by a sociologist called Robert Jackall, he found that many employees segregated their personal beliefs from the ethics of their workplace. He found that most employees believed that what is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. That what was right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. In the employees' eyes, that is what morality was in the corporation.

For long, we have been conditioned to believe that political leaders ought to promote ethical conduct which their followers emulate. That what leaders incentivise communicates the values they hold which resonate with their followers, or repel their would be followers.

This, however, is a fallacy because politics is adversarial. And as Carl von Clausewitz aptly described it, it is a continuation of war by other means. It has, therefore, become customary that political opponents expect to be slandered, and hence the campaign strategists engage in the vicious act by any means necessary. Resultantly, politicians occupy roles that require them to work at cross-purposes, furthering incompatible ends while trying to thwart each other’s plans.

I submit that in politics, people are motivated not by altruism or service to society, but by self-interest. Politicians pursue their own advantage with intense vigour without avoiding to harm their competitors, unless there are clear penalties that discourage such harm. They, therefore, do not hesitate to engage in political incivility, innuendos, manipulation and exaggeration, if doing so will advance their selfish ends.

 

The effects of insults in politics have long been used as a way to rally supporters. And politicians have mastered this art of political put-down which involves stinging rebukes and stinging their opponents in the right places, and in front of the right crowd. And not surprisingly, those deemed as the custodians of societal morals, have called on the politicians to stop this political incivility. But this is like asking water not to be wet.

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the politicians' supporters: As Sun Tzu advised, all warfare is based on deception. And politics is warfare. When you are able to attack, you must seem unable; when using your forces, you must appear inactive; and when you are near, you must make the enemy believe you are far away. Likewise, the politicians may deceive us that they are enemies trading insults and conditioning us to do the same to each other. But they trade insults during the day, and dine and wine together during the night away from the glare of the camera.

This rhetoric will only escalate as the elections draw near. And the expectation is that we, their supporters will perpetuate the political incivility amongst ourselves, turn neighbour against neighbour, and brother against brother. Only for a long-planned handshake to happen down the road, leaving us feeling wounded and betrayed. Let us, therefore, as the electorate, never forget, that we have no dog in this fight.

Never use a big word when a little filthy one will do.” - ― Johnny Carson