Personal attacks on politicians, women seeking abortion must not be new norm
Unchecked harassment and demonisation of individuals damaging to civil society
Protesters outside the home of Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton on Griffith Avenue in Drumcondra, Dublin, recently. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
A troubling issue in Irish political life over the last decade, is that public debate and discourse is increasingly personalised. In recent weeks we have had protests at Minister’s homes and concerns about direct action protests against women seeking termination. It is a troubling pattern and one that doubtless is influenced by changes in a similar direction across the globe.
I was one of those that got involved in debating at school. When I look back on it, I wonder how we did it. Ready for verbal sparring on the motion an hour after it was received. There was only one key rule. An important one that I have taken with me through life. When arguing a point, address the issue not the person. The view was that a debate was lost as soon as it is personalised.
Debate gets personal in two ways. Accidentally or on purpose. The first is when someone misidentifies a criticism as personal. So, for example, it is possible that when someone is talking about problems that ensue for children when both parents work outside the home, this could directly threaten my sense of myself as a mother. And that perceived threat to my identity as “a good mother” might feel personal, even though the discussion was a more general one. And so I can experience a previously measured conversation as personalised.
One interesting finding related to the value of these more personalised forms of action is that they tend to be viewed as inappropriate by bystanders and onlookers
A conversation can become tense. In these cases, we often hear the charge that someone is taking things “too personally”. We could also interpret this tension in a more sympathetic way and say that for many this issue is personal and is something that they care deeply about.
More worryingly perhaps, there is now evidence that the nature and extent of personalised criticism is linked to characteristics of the group the person belongs to.
During my early years as a lecturer I, like so many others, routinely had my teaching evaluated. One key element of this process is asking students to complete surveys. In one of my first evaluations, about a dozen or so students, from a class of 400, commented on my clothes and appearance.
Perturbed as I was (I took these personal comments personally) I mentioned this to a senior colleague. He was really surprised. He had never experienced this. Back in the day, there weren’t too many senior women, however, I sought one out and she informed me that she had had this experience too.
Why am I telling you this story? Well as the years have gone by, and research has emerged, it is apparent that teaching evaluations of this sort are subject to all sort of social biases. So much so that teaching evaluations are now viewed as problematic for recruitment and promotion decisions in higher education.
At a more general level, we now know that women, ethnic minorities and younger people are often subjected to more openly personalised commentary. These nasty, personalised encounters appear to be driven by features of groups that these people belong to.
There is a great and interesting literature in social psychology on those who engage in more extreme forms of protest as exemplified by “the Fingal Battalion” and “the Sidewalk Advocates for Life”. One interesting finding related to the value of these more personalised forms of action is that they tend to be viewed as inappropriate by bystanders and onlookers.
These approaches tend to undermine the support of all but the most dedicated followers. Importantly, however, the protest can galvanise the protesters themselves and this galvanisation may be crucial when there is a serious political mountain to climb. And although the various forms of aggressive political action change no one’s mind, they are an effective and mobilising way to preach to the choir.
So it would seem that for every inadvertently personalised discussion, there are many more that are wilfully and strategically personal. This type of vilification is something we need to be handle with care.
Shut down voices
It serves to shut down voices. In the ultimate circular argument, those subjected to this heavy-handed treatment, are routinely advised not to take things so personally. And while in any democracy, citizens have the right to protest, others have the right to protection as they go about their daily work and business.
We need a balance to be struck between these two sets of conflicting rights. And such personalisation doesn’t just silence one, it can silence the voice of many who might have wanted to participate in the debate or engage in public life.
Unchecked harassment and demonisation of individuals, means those who step up or speak out are belittled. It impedes the debate that is the hallmark of democracy. For a healthy body politic it is essential that individualised attacks do not become the new norm.
Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at the University of Limerick