JANE GOODALL. A plague of political idiots.

Increasing awareness of distortion and deception in news media is accompanied by rising levels of anger about what amounts to an intelligence crisis in public communication. People with opposing views accuse each other of being useful idiots for the propaganda merchants, and failing to see the realities. Politicians are caricatured as idiots and clowns, glove puppets for oligarchs and corporate enterprises. This rhetorical trend may be a signal that we refuse to be taken for fools, but a growing obsession with the stupidity of others may itself be becoming a toxic influence.

There is no question that taking people for fools has indeed been central to the political strategy of neoliberal governments. ‘Public opinion is the work of men like us,’ as Friedrich Hayek said in his address to the founding meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. Since then numerous heavily bank-rolled think tanks have been dedicated to finding ways of persuading electorates to vote for policies contrary to their interests, while media barons set out to sell the message in lurid images and language. 

A backlash against this is long overdue, and politicians who play to the lowest common denominators of popular motivation – xenophobia, resentment, and financial anxiety – are prime targets. Pauline Hanson has been called ‘Australia’s most lauded political idiot’. On twitter, she’s dubbed ‘the Oxley Moron.’ 

There are rich pickings in the lexicon of stupidity. Much of it is derived from the imagery of the evolutionary throw-back. Cartoonists portray Tony Abbott as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Bernard Keane, political editor of Crikey, confessed in a tweet that he ‘once called Peter Dutton a drooling cretin.’

Infantilism is another form of retardation, and here caricaturists have had a field-day with President Trump. Giant inflatable Trump babies float above crowds of protesters, while the President’s communiques are received as dummy spits, temper trantrums, and ‘full nappy’ alerts. The suggestion is that he’s so intellectually challenged he can’t spell, can’t write and can barely speak coherently.

Given the ugliness of some of the views and policies pursued by these figures, isn’t this excusable – a necessary outlet for high levels of frustration and anxiety, and a deserved take-down for people who are unworthy of public office? But some cautions are also due. Stupidity and idiocy are central to the repertoire of insults most of us learn in childhood, and we tend to regress ourselves when we resort to it.

There is also some troubling cultural history behind most of the key words. In nineteenth and early twentieth century psychiatry, ‘moron,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile’ and ‘cretin’ were labels for levels of retardation in a system of classification based on an evolutionary interpretation of human development. We should beware of these terms. 

To even think of referring to a child with a learning disability as an imbecile would now be seen as pernicious. Consigning human beings to an inferior category is a vile and dangerous practice, and in the history of racism, social Darwinism has a lot to answer for.

I’m skeptical of the tendency to police vocabulary at the level of the word. ‘Idiot’ is a term so widely used that it has now surely lost its more malign connotations. Context, tone, phrasing and association are the elements that really render an expression abusive. 

Some words, though, are more loaded than others, partly because of their tendency to attract clusters of other terms and images that can make up a dangerous pattern of abuse. This syndrome has become starkly evident in the case of British politician Diane Abbott. Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, is a socialist. She has a strong media profile, as a regular guest on BBC current affairs programs, but is hardly a populist. She runs no controversial campaigns, and has no rabid following. Born in London, of Jamaican parents, she was the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. 

She is frequently the target of abusive language in the press and on social media

Following a recent appearance on the BBC panel program Question Time, she lodged a formal complaint about prejudicial treatment, which included an allegation that presenter Fiona Bruce had made unscripted remarks in the pre-broadcast warm-up that were demeaning and liable to stir up racist attitudes. 

The recording of the episode released on YouTube has drawn some 2,000 comments, nearly half of which are about Diane Abbott, and the majority of those are hostile. They run the gamut of the stupidity lexicon, calling her ‘a blithering idiot,’ ‘utterly retarded and obnoxious,’ ‘thick as mince,’ ‘dumber than a box of rocks,’ with ‘the IQ of a pickled walnut.’ But that’s only the run-of-the-mill insults. At the next level we get: ‘Half-wit Diane not fit to clean the local toilets’; ‘I-see-Pink-Heffalumps-all-day-long Stupid’; ‘Fatabbot the moron’; ‘has early stage dementia.’

Then there is an escalation to overt forms of racial vilification. She is described as ‘a bloated cockroach’ and ‘Abbotopomus.’ ‘Should have known that the 71 point average Jamaican IQ would come to the fore for Abbot in the end,’ says one contributor. ‘Diane Abbot has the same IQ as a chimpanzee,’ says another. There are also various remarks too obscene to be reported here.

Diane Abbott is a Cambridge graduate. In the 1970s she worked for the Home Office, where she was selected for an accelerated career track, going on to an appointment as Race Relations Officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties. She went into politics in 1982 as a member of the Westminster City Council and was elected to parliament in 1987. She won 75% of the vote in her electorate at the 2017 election.

Abuse has a life of its own in public culture. It obeys no rules about appropriate levels and targets. If public intelligence is in crisis, this obsession with stupidity will do nothing to restore it. It’s time to think again about what intelligence is, and how to cultivate it. 




Jane Goodall is an Emeritus Professor with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. She writes regularly for Inside Story.


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4 Responses to JANE GOODALL. A plague of political idiots.

  1. John Doyle says:

    This is a timely article. Abuse has been growing in comunities and now has all politicians facing it. No one now has much sympathy for a politician copping abuse, although the Diane Abbot episode was extreme and racist, It helps let off steam when our politicians disgrace themselves with policies and decisions that are seen to be ridiculous, exaggerated and destructive.
    As I have mentioned before the political scene is toxic because politicians are so captured by their vested interest patrons and wont to rush ot a fear agenda that we are seeing through today.
    Obviously the politicians are not defectives. Many are tertiary educated, even with a PhD like Bob Stokes. But their behaviour is so clearly skewed by vested interests that they dare not bite the hand that feeds it and just look incapable of good common sense.
    I specialise in modern economics, [a retirement passion] and I can see the lies and falsehoods related to it very clearly. Yet even bringing politicians to notice with the facts has not delivered even one , from any background, including Labor, to understand how it works [MMT] and act upon it. So those who should know better are damnably unskilled in the topic and are REALLY DAMAGING to the community because evil and toxic policies, [like cutting welfare and healthcare], are given air space. Time to stop.

  2. David Maxwell Gray says:

    My instincts are to make comments only in moderate, abstract language working under the assumption that I am not speaking to convinced proponents of either side of an issue, but to those able to be swayed. Hence my comments are often uninteresting!

    However, there are times when excellent, witty writers – such as Mungo MacCallum – can express predominantly negative comments reinforcing my existing opinions, causing me to smile wickedly. The filter should be that acceptable comments of a negative nature need to display higher levels of wit, complexity and humour, avoiding comments which are personally bigoted, misogynist, racist or of other disgusting natures. Negative comments having real effect appeal to our affective as well as cognitive dimensions. Mungo also has great choice of words!

  3. Kevin Bain says:

    The author abhors the decline in civil discourse, but doesn’t discuss how much worse it is and how this might be measured. Arguably, much of the quarrelling is from visibility –technological, demographic, education factors give opportunities for public commentary beyond grumps muttering into their beer down the pub. The local evidence given is a bit thin – Australians, English, Americans have quite different attitudes on “otherness” and values, as Pew, Scanlon etc. show.

    As culturally sophisticated and literate writers and communicators are a better bet for improvement than messages of “caution” and “beware”, I’d like to hear about the author’s experiences teaching the future professionals. Do they read widely and deeply? How do NESB students cope?

  4. Bill Legge says:

    What an excellent and timely comment! If my objective is to persuade people to change their opinion on something, abuse and ridicule are hardly likely to be effective strategies. On the other hand, if I want to intimidate people and discourage them from straying from ‘acceptable’ paths then there’s nothing like burning heretics in the market square. In times of fear many will stay with the mob for fear the mob will turn on them. Those with power will often seek to unleash the mob to divert public attention from the real cause of distress, and there seems to be no shortage of people who revel in the release from restraint allowed by the frenzy.

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