Monday, 28 September 2009

Prejudice as accepted fact

Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy comments on the recent controversy over Andrew Marr's questioning of Gordon Brown. [don't read the comments]

Andrew Marr, for the BBC, asked:

A lot of people in this country use prescription painkillers and pills to help them get through; are you one of those people?

The Prime Minister, unsurprisingly, refused to answer the question.

Sunny criticises the way that this "legitimised a smear" that's been going around for ages, but I think this misses the point.

The most irritating thing is that the entire controversy over it is based on a very dangerous chain of illogic. There have been plenty of people leaping in to deny that Gordon Brown takes painkillers, and to criticise the people who've suggested it. This is entirely expected, all part of politics, etc. What's getting lost in this is that it shouldn't be an issue in the first place.

In the 2008 US Presidential campaign, Barack Obama was accused by his opponents of being "a Muslim". This was denied strongly and repeatedly refuted by numerous people - but very few people thought to add - or start with - "and so what if he is?". Colin Powell is the only major US political figure I can remember raising that point, though there may have been others.

It's the same issue here - Andrew Marr was undoubtedly entirely in the wrong to ask a question about Brown's medical history: there are very few questions a journalist can ask about anyone's medical history, and none of those possibilities applied here.

The rumours that have been started about Brown's medical history and mental health are undoubtedly intended by their initiators as smears. They really shouldn't be - it should be as pointless a question as "So, I hear you ate a carrot yesterday, Prime Minister. Could you confirm or deny this rumour?"

It works as a 'smear' because enough people vaguely believe a variation on one of these two clearly false statements:

  • People with chronic pain should not be Prime Minister. Our Prime Minister needs to be an idealised specimen of humanity (and, you know, straight, white, male, and other defaults would be good, while you're at it)
  • People with chronic pain should not take medication for it, and doing so makes them unsuitable to be Prime Minister

You can substitute for chronic pain any of the other numerous mental health problems people have suggested Brown might have (most commonly depression, something which the generally popular and successful Prime Minister Churchill also lived with). I'd certainly rather any politician with health problems, mental or physical, was receiving appropriate treatment for those problems. Laurie at Penny Red covered this well the last time it came up (which, note the post dates, was 3 weeks ago...). Going back a bit further, Charles Kennedy was forced to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats over his alcholism, and has since been replaced by various people who are neither as competent nor as popular with the public. Good going there, Lib Dems.

The people responding to this and criticising the "legitimisation of a smear" need to be more careful not to legitimise the idea that it would be bad if it was true while they're at it. Breaking that illogic is the only long-term way out of this.