15 December 2016

The Darker Side #nlpoli

The day after Cathy Bennett talked about the hate-filled and threatening messages she'd received after delivering last spring's budget, the echo chamber that is Newfoundland politics had already absorbed the story and claimed it confirmed  that men were the only perpetrators of the violence that was aimed exclusively at women politicians and political activists.

In itself, the speed with which familiar, affiliated voices appropriated the story is a reminder of the extent to which social media  - and media generally - is not so much the vehicle of open discussion aimed at finding truth from facts as much as it is another battleground in partisan warfare that unfolds along predetermined lines.

CBC Radio Noon asked a question for its Wednesday show:  "If Finance Minister Cathy Bennett were a man, would she be such a target on social media?"

The answer is "yes" although that's not the way the show and its guest answered the question.

The comments aimed at Bennett didn't come to her because she was a woman.  They came to her because she was a finance minister who delivered a very unpopular budget. Check with any finance minister before Bennett who delivered a comparable budget.  Ask a male Premier who did something unpopular. You will find they all suffered savage comments and many of them suffered threats that prompted swift police action and, in some instances, court appearances and jail time.

Politics is a harsh business.  People in our society are ugly, miserable, little shits at times.  Social media is just a particularly popular venue for people to express their feelings.  That doesn't dismiss the pain Bennett and others feel or condone the abuse.  The sorts of threats and abuse that Bennett and others have felt isn't something she ought to tolerate.  It's just to acknowledge the reality that, when it comes to abuse,  politics treats everyone in the same shitty way.

The other point to take out of that reality is that people who claim the issue is solely one or even predominantly one of men perpetrating attacks against women are simply wrong.  They selectively pick their evidence to fit inside their pre-built frame.  They may think it makes a lovely picture but the truth is that the picture they offer is grotesquely distorted.

Just in the past decade we have seen the evidence in our own legislature that shows the abuse is perpetrated by politicians against other politicians, regardless of sex. Women have attacked other women over body and dialect. Men have attacked other men over their bodies.  Kathy Dunderdale and Charlene Johnson were as likely to be petty and condescending to their political enemies as any man.

One commentator on CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday actually basically brushed aside the fact that "we" make fun of John Efford's accent or applaud "Danny Williams' aggressiveness." Well, for starters, people didn't make fun of Danny Williams for being aggressive but we'll get back to that in a second.  As for Efford's accent,  way too many people have criticised Efford, Yvonne Jones or, more recently Dwight Ball,  for being stupid because of their dialect. 

Allowing that such behaviour is acceptable - as CBC's commentator clearly did  - is confirmation of the distorted worldview some people in our province have. The people here who make fun of the way people speak don't criticise all accents equally.  An Irish lilt is acceptable to folks who think a certain way while another accent  - a rural English one - denotes a stupid, lazy baymen.  It is a very old, deeply-rooted bigotry in our society that pops up every now and again.

As for Williams, no one made fun of his "aggressiveness".  To the contrary,  too many people ignored it and, what's worse, attacked those who pointed out that Williams' hyper-aggressive attacks on dissidents created a dangerous, poisoned political atmosphere in our province.  That atmosphere gave us every sort of abuse of power from the expropriation to chronic overspending to Bill 29 to Muskrat Falls.

Politics has a dark side, anyway, as Steve Paikin aptly pointed out in his 2003 book. Paikin didn't selectively talk to men or women.  His balanced, objective assessment found, not surprisingly, that politicians pay a steep price for their public service.  Men are as scarred by the damage politics does to them and to family life as are women.

Men and women cause that damage to politicians through the abuse they heap on them.  When some of us engage in selective abuse,  we encourage a darker side to politics and that does no one any good. There's a truly sad irony that the guest on Radio Noon's show was the head of an organization trying to get more women involved in politics.  The way to get more women involved in politics is the same way we get more men,  more lesbians, more gay men,  more people of any kind into politics.  We do that by fighting against the abuse of politicians generally and individually that is discouraging good people from putting their name on a ballot.

And while we are on the subject,  let us put an end - once and for all - to politicians like Dwight Ball attacking politics and belittling those who run for office.  His relentless assault on political pensions is based on ignorance.  It is pandering to people who know nothing of politics and politicians and who care even less about them. Threatening to slice the pensions of former members of the House, as Ball did last week, only shows how profound is his ignorance of the real circumstances of the real men and women who went before him.  Dwight Ball is not a stupid man but when he says stupid things,  he only encourages more of the darkness that Cathy Bennett experienced first hand.